Chapter 131

I spent the next four days feverishly scouring the combined troves of information that the Texan and Max still had access to, hoping to catch some sort of clue that might point me in the direction of either Frizzle or Gates. According to the Community’s unwritten rules, we weren’t supposed to put any effort into uncovering another member’s real identity, but we’d all treated that as more of a guideline than anything concrete. After all, anyone who wasn’t able to properly hide their internet traffic didn’t really deserve to be a part of our elite club. At least, that’s the lie I’d told myself when, on the rare occasion when nothing else needed my attention, I’d idly attempted to break through someone’s firewalls or figure out their encryption key.

Max had gone a little further in her efforts, but even she hadn’t been able to dig up anything on the remaining two members of the Community. When I’d successfully warned them all about the Mouse’s duplicity, Frizzle and Gates had quickly taken themselves offline. None of their usual sockpuppet accounts were posting on message boards; they either weren’t checking or weren’t responding to emails sent to their burner addresses; and, most tellingly, the logs of the Community’s forums and chat rooms showed that all of the programs and hacks we’d collaborated on over the years had been downloaded and then systematically eradicated.

That wouldn’t stop the Mouse, of course. He’d been involved in the creation of the most powerful and dangerous programs and, in all likelihood, had his own copies of them already stored somewhere offline. It did, however, stop Max and I from utilizing those same tools. Which was probably for the best, all things considered. If he’d helped to write the programs, the Mouse presumably knew to look for certain signature attack patterns. Any attack we launched would have to be unexpected and unpredictable.

Assuming that we could find a person, server, or internet address that was worth attacking.

Everyone else on the team, whether they were core members or simply new satellite figures we were forced to work with now, kept themselves busy while Max and I did what we could. We’d collectively concocted an excuse for Michel to spend a few days in the care of one of the Texan’s doctors. When she wasn’t with him there, Mila was either in the gym or working with the Twins to get a better idea of how much force we could bring to bear, should that become necessary.

Barrett and I communicated via text message a few days a week, now. Because I’d pulled him into the community theatre, he knew just enough to be dangerous and in danger, which meant that he deserved to know, at bare minimum, the stakes we were playing for. I suspected that he was learning more from my terse answers than I meant to tell him but, at the same time, I was very tired and frazzled. It was just easier to answer his questions, so that I could get back to the work of searching for a single digital needle in a field’s worth of haystacks.

Devlin wasn’t speaking to me. Or, more accurately, he wasn’t speaking to me except when absolutely necessary. We’d discussed some of the fine points of the rescue operation, trying to compare notes on the off chance that one of us might have uncovered a vital clue without realizing it. He’d gone out of his way to ensure that I hadn’t been hurt. But, aside from those moments when we couldn’t reasonably avoid communication…nothing. And even when we had been forced by circumstance to talk to each other, Devlin had been cold and clinical. Obviously, he was still peeved about what I’d done – which was understandable, even if I didn’t necessarily agree – but he wasn’t talking about it. The fact that he’d been stewing quietly over his anger for five entire days was unprecedented.

My parents and grandmother had graciously given me space for the better part of a week, which had to be at the outer limits of their patience. So, on the fifth day, I closed the database I’d built to help me navigate through terabytes of information and set up a lunch date with them at a barbecue restaurant that I picked at random from Yelp. Elizabeth put in a token complaint about the place, but Raymond and Virginia united to overrule her We agreed to meet there around one.

For a fleeting instant, I considered inviting Devlin to join us. That moment passed quickly, though. I had a cover to maintain. So, I called Barrett instead.

The phone rang long enough that I thought I might have missed him, before he finally answered. “Everything alright?”

Everything’s fine,” I said. “As good as it’s going to get at least. Why do you think something has to be wrong?”

Well, you normally only text,” Barrett pointed out. “And even then, only when it’s dark out and you need a date to get a late night drink.”

Heat blossomed in my cheeks. We’d gotten another drink since the community theater, but only once. He made a point to ask me to go out with him again and I’d turned him down. It got harder to tell him no each time, though. He didn’t push the matter, aside from the steady requests, but we both knew it was only a matter of time before I broke down and went out with him again.

Wrong,” I said, “but not entirely. I made plans with the elder Fords today. Since you’re their favorite fake husband, and they’ve been pretty relaxed about me locking myself away, I figured we should give them something to hold them over.”

Sounds like a date to me.”

Check your hearing, then. This is a work outing. Keeping my parents from asking too many questions about why I’m in Dallas, what I’m doing here, and what exactly it is that you do for money is in everyone’s best interest.”

He sucked his teeth. “Are you always this charming when you’re asking people out?”

I grinned to myself, but tried to keep that from being audible in my voice. “Anytime my family’s involved, sure. I’m sending you an address. Meet me there in…two hours? We should be together when they pull up.”

I just got out of the gym,” Barrett said. “But two hours should be long enough for me to shower and slip into something a little less comfortable. Or you could head this way earlier, assuming that you don’t already -”

I hung up the phone before he could go any further. My smile lingered for a few more seconds, though.

Now that I had an item on my agenda that didn’t involve scrolling through screen after screen of random information, the morning passed by much faster. I barely had enough time to stack up the plates from several nights’ worth of room service, take a much-needed shower, and find something suitable to wear before I needed to leave.

Instead of borrowing one of the company cars or seeking out Michel for the keys, I chose to order a car. My parent’s presence had blown any semblance of secrecy, so there was really no reason to lay low during the daytime hours. No one would pay attention to the other Ford, when the two scions of the family were in town…unless, of course, I went out of my way to dodge the media. Riding in comfort was both relaxing and practical.

That’s what I told myself, at least.

While I rode through the city, I pulled my phone from my purse and scrolled through some of the latest news stories. Rather than face another encounter with Akumi, the kidnappers had summarily turned themselves in to the authorities for some other open cases, wisely keeping our existence to themselves. Those four would be out of our hair for the foreseeable future, which was good news, but there was no way to know if the rest of the kidnappers would bow out or if they’d double down on their mission. I hoped for the former, even though all anecdotal evidence pointed towards the latter. Another bridge to cross when we absolutely had to.

No mention of the fight at the community theater hit the papers or the internet. Neither did the massacre at the dock house break through into mainstream coverage. We’d done nothing to suppress either of those stories. Someone was covering their tracks. That worked for us, in the short term. No one would be served by getting the police actively involved. But, on a longer timeline, it was discomfiting to realize that someone with enough pull to disappear that many bodies was working against us. I was sure the Lady had that kind of power, but she preferred not to actively help us. The Magi could presumably exercise that same sort of control. But could the Mouse?

And, as expected, the business pages were buzzing with rumors and speculation as to why Raymond and Elizabeth Ford had arrived in Dallas. Some stories were better sourced than others, but none of them seemed particularly close to the mark. That was easy to figure out. More than likely, my parents’ people were actively stoking rumors to drive up interest in whatever secret project my father was considering. If he was okay with the papers talking about it, the defense project couldn’t possibly be related to a weapon system or anything like that. At the same time, he wouldn’t be bothering with the media strategy for a basic corporate takeover or integration.

It was an interesting puzzle, but not an important one. Especially not now, with the timer running down before the Mouse gained access to all of my secrets. I put it aside and focused on more timely matters for the rest of the ride.

Barrett was standing outside of his hotel when the car arrived. He wore a white t-shirt that stretched across his muscles and a pair of unremarkable – albeit very well tailored – jeans, topped off by a newsboy cap. As the car slowed to a stop in front of him, he flicked away the remaining half of a cigarette and rolled his shoulders slowly.

I rolled down the window and took a second to appreciate the way his clothes fit his body before speaking. He was fully aware of my appreciation, judging from the way he shifted his shoulders back slightly and raised his chin at a slight angle. He was preening. And I couldn’t deny that it was having the desired effect.

Waiting for anyone in particular?” I asked. “Or are you just modeling on the corner for effect?”

Well,” Barrett said, “I was honestly hoping that a beautiful heiress would just pick me up and take me away from my Dickensian life. You wouldn’t happen to know anyone like that, would you?”

I just might.”

I opened the door and gestured for him to join me in the back seat. He took a spot, closer to the middle than the far side of the vehicle, which put him close enough that the tips of our fingers could almost touch if I wasn’t careful.

I told the driver where we were headed and he eased back into traffic. When we’d been on the road for a few minutes, Barrett lowered his voice and hooked a thumb at the driver. “Is he…?”

I shook my head. “I needed some way to get around town that didn’t involve me constantly staring at my GPS and stalling traffic for miles. That’s all.”

Barrett nodded thoughtfully. He paused before continuing. “That project you’re working on? Have you had any progress so far?”

It wasn’t a very good code, as codes went, but the driver would need a lot more information about my illicit activities to figure out what Barrett meant. It would probably be safe to discuss the matter in vague generalities, so long as we didn’t veer into anything that would give the game away.

Nothing noteworthy,” I said. “I know that the…general scope of the task is a helluva lot bigger than I would’ve thought possible.”

Oh?”

Oh, indeed,” I confirmed. “Honestly, I’m probably looking at another few months of work, just to sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.”

Would another pair of eyes help?”

I’d considered the idea before but, with Devlin giving me the silent treatment, I didn’t want to spend that much time in any one person’s company. Still, I thought about the idea one more time before shaking my head. “I don’t think so, no. It’s just going to be a matter of brute force.”

And the deadline? What about that?”

It’s going to be matter of brute force,” I amended, “and dumb luck.”

One corner of Barrett’s mouth twitched minutely upward. “Do you find that you have a lot of that?”

Not so much lately, no.” I sighed. “The work’s got to get done, though. I’ll figure it out. It isn’t the hardest problem I’ve had to deal with in the, uh, office.”

Barrett raised an eyebrow at that, but didn’t ask a question or push for clarification. Even if he hadn’t put together everything – and really, how could anyone guess that my team and I were working at the behest of a mysterious woman who seemed to be everywhere at once with a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of stylish black attire? – Barrett had to know by now that my criminal career was a lot more dangerous than it had any right to be. Regular thieves were afraid of the cops or the competition. People were trying to kill us in the full light of day.

What kind of things do you usually deal with?”

Charities,” I said. Which was an honest answer, even if the context was a bit misleading. I had, in fact, specialized in draining the bank accounts of phony charities for quite a long time before Devlin drew me into the world of high stakes art theft. “I’ve always been very interested in giving back to the underprivileged.”

When you say underprivileged, do you mean those poor people who can only afford one yacht or…?”

I punched him in the arm, the way Mila had taught me to throw a punch. There wasn’t enough room in the car to really work up any strength, but he did hiss in surprise and rub at the spot where my fist had connected with muscle.

I can’t help who my parents are,” I said. “Or my grandparents, for that matter. I’m just trying to do my part to…equalize the situation, I guess.”

And your business accomplishes that?”

I hadn’t discussed my reasons for becoming a hacker with anyone except for Devlin. It wasn’t exactly a secret. Before him, no one else had known about my proclivities, so there’d been no one to explain myself to. While we’d been working together, he’d served as the face for our operations, so none of the other thieves we’d worked with had any idea what I did with my share of the profits. And, after we’d broken up, I hadn’t been working, so I hadn’t had any thing to discuss at all.

And now, there were so many larger problems facing us that it simply never came up in conversation. I would’ve shared that information with Michel or Mila in a heartbeat, if they ever thought to ask. Max probably wouldn’t care and, after my deep dive into his archives, I wasn’t sure if the Texan already knew. Barrett was…different, though. He didn’t seem to be asking simply to fill the air; his eyes were alight with actual, genuine curiosity.

My business does what it can,” I said. “Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, things get chewed up by the machine and it doesn’t go the way I’d like. I’ve still got to try, though.”

Barrett nodded thoughtfully to himself for several long seconds. “I’ve known a lot of people in business,” he said, speaking slowly and clearly picking each word very carefully. “And you know I’ve been working at my own brand for a while. But I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who got into business with the intention of helping someone else.”

I shrugged. “What can I say? I’m one of a kind.”

He looked me dead in the eyes, then let his gaze trail down from my face to my bare shoulders, my chest, and my exposed legs. Then he brought his eyes back up again.

Yes,” he said. “You certainly are.”

My body temperature went up about ten degrees instantly and I searched for something interesting outside of the window to stare at. Still, I could feel his eyes on my back.

We didn’t say anything else to each other for the rest of the ride. When the car reached the restaurant, he hopped out first and then rushed around to open my door for me. I took his offered hand, because it would’ve been out of character not to, and allowed him to guide me around to the curb. The whole time, he stayed slightly behind me and the pressure of his gaze was undeniable.

So, on a pure instinct, I shifted my shoulders back slightly and walked a little straighter. I lengthened my stride and allowed my bare legs to peek out a little bit more with each step.

It was a bad idea. I knew it was a bad idea. But, after having so many bad ideas in the last few months that had only served to my life harder and more confusing, it felt good to enjoy at least one of them. I’d just deal with whatever consequences this particular choice brought down on me when that time came. For now…

For now, I didn’t mind giving him a little show. Because, of course, it was in character.

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Chapter 130

The jolt of panic that shot through my body was expected. What surprised me, however, was the wave of intense focus that followed in its wake. In an instant, I thought through a half dozen different ways that the Mouse could have tracked down Max and considered twice as many implications. With my mind suddenly forced into overdrive, it only took me a fraction of a second to assess the situation and come up with a course of action.

Is this place burned?” I asked Max.

She shook her head, hesitated, then shook it again. “I…I don’t think so. As soon as I spotted the surveillance on the old theatre, I got away from there. He’s probably still waiting for me there.”

But you took precautions?” Devlin chimed in. He stepped past Max, so that he could peer through the secondhand computer shop’s front window. The passage of time had caked enough dirt and grime on the glass that they were borderline opaque, but that didn’t stop him from straining his eyes. “Just in case?”

I ditched everything from the fair,” Max said, “except for the hard drive with your recording on it.”

Devlin turned to me. “Sarah?”

I understood the question without him having to speak it aloud. “It’s just hardware,” I responded. “It doesn’t transmit any data that could be tracked or identified. If no one tailed her here from the old theatre, they won’t be able to get to us through the hard drive.”

Good.” He shifted his attention back to Max. “Can you still do whatever you needed to do from here?”

Max took several deep breaths to calm herself. It wasn’t until the Texan, taking long strides to cover the distance as quickly as possible, wrapped an arm around her that she seemed to settle slightly. “I have the parts here. I think. I don’t know for sure.”

Whatever you need, we can get for you,” I said.

Mila helped Michel into a seated/reclined position against the wall before she spoke. “How did he find you, though? Did you make a mistake?”

Caelum…it’s possible,” Max admitted, “but I don’t know how. He’d have to monitor everywhere I could possibly be, at any given moment, and then he’d still have to be incredibly lucky. We were on an unused frequency, but that kind of traffic wouldn’t look any different than a Bluetooth headset from a distance.”

I wasn’t quite as versed in communications technology – or, more specifically, intercepting and eavesdropping on communications – as Max, but I’d had more than enough in-the-field practice with my own homebrew earbuds. When we were on the job, a basic equation had to be balanced, with regards to our equipment. If we wanted to be absolute certain of our privacy, the construction and tuning of our earbuds would take time and money. Over the years, I was more or less certain that I could make our lines borderline untraceable…if I had the time to devote to that task.

When time wasn’t available, however, we were forced to choose expediency over efficiency. Bluetooth headsets had been the primary method, back during those first few fumbling jobs. They were easy to use, simple to acquire, but also incredibly easy to intercept. In a setting like the fair, however, Max and I had both hoped that no one would bother noticing a single transmission among the thousands or ten of thousands that would have been taking place all around us.

From a distance?” Akumi asked. She was perched on the edge of a table, one leg dangling freely in front of her. Her brother leaned against the wall where Michel sat/lay. Even though they were both perfectly calm, I couldn’t quite suppress the feeling of unease their presence inspired in me.

Without getting too technical,” I said, “we were in the middle of a crowd of people. Some of them are going to keep their Bluetooth on all of the time; some of them would be making phone calls or sending picture messages. In the thick of that, it’d be almost impossible to pinpoint a specific signal.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized my mistake. We’d planned to stay at a safe distance…and then I’d decided to go into the theatre. And, when I’d gone in after Devlin and the rest, that had forced Max to come closer to the building as well.

I caught Max’ eyes and saw that she’d come to the same realization. She started to open her mouth but, before her lips could part more than a centimeter, I shook my head. No one was looking at me except for her, so the gesture went unnoticed. Max’ lips stayed slightly parted for a second or two and then she slowly closed them.

It could have been embarrassment or shame that kept me from speaking out. I didn’t know and I couldn’t really spare the time to plumb the depths of my emotions. Likewise, it could have been pure ego or a desire to avoid another chastisement from Devlin that pushed me to silence Max.

But I didn’t think so. There were too many people in the room, too many unknown variables with secrets all of their own. Giving away a potential weakness – or even acknowledging that a weakness had been identified – seemed like a bad idea. I could talk to the core members of my team about it later. But with the Twins and Barrett in the room…my gut instinct told me that the smart play was to keep quiet.

Instead of speaking out, Max cleared her throat dramatically and shrugged the Texan’s arm from around her shoulder. “What do we do now?”

Of the people in the room, about half – the Texan, both Akumi and Kira, and Michel – looked at Devlin. The remaining people – Mila, Barrett, and Max – turned their eyes to me. Devlin and I exchanged a look before, with a subtle incline of his head, he gestured for me to take the lead. It was the first interaction we’d had since the fair that hadn’t been tinged with bitterness or anger.

Any equipment we used at the fair should be scrapped,” I said. “Even better, if we can find a way to rig up some of what’s remaining and send it far away, we might be able to buy ourselves some free time.”

I can talk to Adel,” Mila said. “She could probably use the extra scrap metal. Michel can come with me.”

Michel still wasn’t speaking, but he did nod in agreement.

You,” I said, pointing at the Texan, “do you still have any contacts in the area that you can reach out to? Discreetly?”

He frowned for a few seconds. “I might,” he drawled out, after an eternity. “Depends on what you want ’em to do, really.”

Nothing dangerous,” I assured him. “But we’re still going to need someone to scout out that abandoned firing range the kidnapper mentioned.”

Akumi hopped off of the table, rolling her shoulders one at a time. “We can do that,” she said.

I blinked at her. So did Mila. “You can do…what, exactly?”

The range,” Akumi clarified. “Kira and I will go there. Tomorrow night, after he has rested.”

I’d seen her in action. It would be stupid to turn down the assistance of a proven asset in the field. But Mila had warned us all already about Akumi’s sense of loyalty. While she wasn’t a fickle person, the hitwoman had a flexible sense of morality and conviction. She’d stand up for her brother against anyone who tried to hurt him. During her days in the Yakuza, I imagined that it was her twin, not any fidelity to the local crime lords, that kept her working productively and achieving results.

That was fine, when we both had the same goal: identify the kidnappers and retrieve Kira. But if things went sideways, how could I know that she wouldn’t cut ties and abandon us to our enemies?

Why?” I asked.

You…” Akumi paused and spoke quickly to Kira in Japanese. He responded in the same language, along with a few sweeping gestures that included all of us.

I what?”

You helped us,” Akumi said. “When you did not have to, you helped me to find my twin. For that, I owe you.”

We owe you,” Kira added. He coughed and winced with the words.

That’s not the only reason, though, is it?” Mila asked.

Akumi turned to her and her lips thinned to a vanishingly small line. “No,” she said. “I would speak with whoever ordered his kidnapping, as well. I would prefer to…discourage other people from trying this again.”

A chill ran up my spine at the implication. Something told me that her version of discouragement would leave the kidnapper’s boss incapable of retaliation. Which, ultimately, would probably serve as an awfully good object lesson to any suitably motivated party: if you want the Twins, you’d better kill the Twins. Both of them, at once. Leaving one free to act was just suicide.

What will you do with them?” Akumi asked. She thumbed a finger over her shoulder, in the direction of the back storage room.

Like I said, we’ll call the cops.” Satisfied that no one was peeking through the other side of the dirty windows, Devlin shrugged with one arm. “I’ll see if there’s anything else I can get out of them – now that one of their number has spilled the beans, the rest of them are probably in there arguing over who can give the best information – but I doubt it. Most of what they know, we already know.”

And we don’t know anything they don’t know,” I said. “Leaving us mostly at square one, as far as this operation is concerned.”

I wouldn’t say square one, exactly,” Barrett said. He’d stayed mostly quiet through the discussion, no doubt collecting information to be used at a later date. It was irritating, but not untenable. We hadn’t explicitly said who Max was, digitally speaking, and we hadn’t voiced our suspicion that the Mouse, Caelum, and the kidnapper’s boss were, in fact, all the same person. I really needed to be better about monitoring what I said and around whom I said it, though.

Oh?” Devlin asked. Then, as if the question jogged his memory, his eyes widened slightly. “Oh.”

The Texan’s whole body swiveled from one man to the other, in a way that would’ve been funny in less dire circumstances. “What’s this now?”

In answer, Barrett reached into his pants pocket and, after a moment of rummaging, withdrew the black box he’d shown us after our encounter in the park.

You’re just carrying that around with you,” Devlin asked, incredulously.

Where else was I going to put it?” Barrett countered. “I can’t fence it, because I don’t know what it is; but it’s sure as shit worth something to somebody and I’m not about to let it get away from me, just because I haven’t figured out much I can get from it.”

Max stared at the black box, mouth open. I noticed her expression at the same time as the Texan, but I spoke before he could. “Max? Do you know what this is?”

I…I think it’s a hard drive,” she said slowly.

I’m not bad with computers,” Mila said, “but even I know that hard drives don’t look anything like that.”

Not normal ones, no,” Max said. “But I was…researching different methods of transferring information a few months ago, trying to help Dad streamline his business. There were a few projects in the works, mostly overseas, but those trials were with tiny amounts of information.”

How tiny?” I asked.

A few megabytes, at the absolute most. It seemed like the projects I was…following…weren’t taking it seriously. Or they weren’t really interested in pushing the envelope. Either way, I thought everything had stalled out a few years ago.”

But this box?”

Max held out a hand to Barrett. When he hesitated a second too long, I bumped him with my shoulder. Sighing, he let the box drop into Max’ outstretched palm. “If you’re keeping that,” he said, “I expect an invoice and appropriate payment. “

The Texan waved down his concern. His full attention was on Max. “So? You think it’s really what we’ve been looking for?”

It could be,” she breathed in response. “I’d have to order an RFID transmitter to find out. There are a lot of tiny components I might be able to spoof the signal, as long as whoever built this wasn’t expecting that type of attack.”

Before Devlin could say anything, I took it upon myself to explain Max’ thoughts. “The hard drive is…like a locked door. We don’t have the key, so Max has to try and make one before we can figure out what’s on it..”

If anything’s on it,” Barrett corrected.

I nodded. “Unless you’ve got any better ideas, though, I think you should go ahead and accept that you might not be getting back your newest trinket.”

Barrett heaved a sigh, but kept any complaints to himself.

Is that hard?” Devlin asked. “Finding the right key?”

Hard’s not the right word,” Max said. She’d found a legal pad and was busily jotting down the names of various parts and computer programs she might need. “It’s complicated and tricky and it might not work, but I wouldn’t say it’s hard. It’ll just take time to find the exact right frequency.”

How much time?”

Max glanced up from her legal pad. “I don’t know that,” she said. “I can’t know that. I could land on the right combination tomorrow morning; I might not get the numbers to work correctly for another two weeks.”

Two weeks. The timer on my personal data – our jobs, our real names, in addition to a full dossier on every false identity we’d used over the years. Not just us, but contacts in the Underworld, former clients, banking information for anyone who’d wired us funds in payment. There was a real possibility that, with the data I’d accumulated over the years, the Mouse would be able to wreak untold havoc on anyone I’d ever come in contact with, both personally and professionally.

They wanted that,” Devlin said. “Whoever hired the kidnappers gave Hunter specific orders to retrieve it. And since we think we know who might have behind those orders…”

He trailed off slowly, leaving enough space in the room for those of us in the know to fill in the blanks. If it was the Mouse, there might be something stored on the hard drive that he wanted or that he considered dangerous. If it was the Magi…we’d been able to savage their supply chain, from top to bottom, with the information we’d gotten in England. A cache of names and numbers stored on a hard drive could be incalculable.

It’s a race, then,” I said. “Either we get something on the people sending kidnappers and gunmen after us…”

Or they figure out who we actually are,” Mila finished.

No one said anything in response to that.

It felt like a full minute passed before Barrett cleared his throat, loudly and deliberately. “I’m playing catch up, so excuse me for asking the obvious question. But what happens if they find out who you are?”

The oppressive silence that fell over the room was answer enough.

Chapter 129

The back room of the computer shop was deathly silent for several excruciating beats, as Devlin slowly walked in a wide circle around the kidnappers.  Even blindfolded, they tried to follow the sound of his footsteps with their heads.  He didn’t speak until he was right behind them.

We’re not without some understanding for your position,” Devlin said. He was still using the exaggerated accent he’d adopted for the meet.  “You took a job.  Probably taken a lot of jobs like it.  And you couldn’t have known in advance that it was going to go this way, right?  Odds are, you four and the rest who got away, were just expecting a quick grab followed by a payoff.  Business as usual.”

The men weren’t gagged, surprisingly, but they still chose not to answer.  Three of them stopped trying to turn around to face Devlin and sightlessly ahead instead.  The fourth kidnapper – the one who’d hesitated back at the theater – swallowed nervously and turned in the direction of his partners for a fraction of a second before he did the same as his cohorts.

Devlin noticed the infinitesimal moment of doubt and gave Akumi a slight nod before he started talking again.  “Here’s the problem, though.  You did take this job and, because you did, the four of you are in some pretty serious trouble now.  And honestly?  There’s not really a lot I can do to help you out of it.”

Akumi took a step closer to the men.  “No,” she said.  “There is not.” 

Except for speaking, she didn’t make any openly hostile moves and, to my eyes at least, her body language was calm and relaxed.  The kidnappers all flinched away from her anyway.

Devlin walked back in front of the kidnappers.  “Now hold on a second,” he said.  “Let’s think this through, shall we?”

She’d already stopped anyway, but the effect of his action gave off the impression that she was at least willing to respect his authority.  It was a subtly crafted bit of showmanship that in no way represented reality, but the kidnappers couldn’t know that.  When had Akumi and Devlin worked out this act?  They couldn’t have been at the computer shop long enough to come up with a whole plan.  Or was it purely instinct on their part?

Either way, it seemed to be working.

Call the cops,” the fourth man said.  I’d pretended to be confident often enough to recognize false bravado in someone else’s voice.  “We can take the time.”

Devlin barked out a harsh laugh.  “The cops?  Us?”

You know who we are,” Akumi said softly.  “You must have known that when you accepted this contract.  There will be no cops for you.”

The fourth man opened his mouth to say something else, but the kidnapper next to him elbowed him in the ribs.  Both men gasped in pain from the effort, but it served its purpose; the fourth man fell silent again.

You don’t happen to know which of your friends hurt my friend, do you?” Devlin asked, abruptly changing his tone into something more conversational than adversarial.  “A friend of ours says he’ll be alright, given a few days to recover, but I just don’t know.  It wasn’t one of you, was it?”

I followed Devlin’s extended arm as he pointed to where Michel and Mila stood.  Michel looked bad – slumped posture, uneven breaths, and beads of sweat on his forehead from the simple exertion of standing – but he met their eyes with blazing intensity of his own.  For her part, Mila seemed content to lean against the wall of the back room, arms crossed under her breasts.  Her shoulder holsters were visible, even though she wasn’t carrying a gun at that exact moment. 

No, probably not,” Devlin concluded.  “That’s probably for the best, honestly.  The ladies can get a bit confrontational about the kind of thing.  But I don’t have to tell you that, do I?”

The kidnapper farthest to Devlin’s left coughed and cleared his throat.  “What do you want?”

Accents weren’t my thing, but I could recognize that this particular kidnapper and the Texan sounded very similar to each other.  It wasn’t identical, but it was certainly near enough that I could safely assume this man was at least from the same state.

Answers,” Devlin said immediately.  Then, he sighed and shrugged again.  “But you don’t have answers.  I mean, sure, maybe you could tell me the name of your boss…but that’s not going to be his real name and we all know it.  And he’s the one who made contact with the actual client, not you, so I don’t actually think there’s much you could do for me, even if you wanted to.”

Then why did you bring us here?”

Devlin hooked a thumb over his shoulder at Akumi.  She’d lowered her empty hands to her side, fingers twitching as if they wanted to make a fist without her consent.

The man you kidnapped from the boathouse was her brother,” Devlin said simply.  He didn’t need to clarify who she was.  “Which…maybe you knew that, maybe you didn’t.  But if I didn’t give her someone to hold responsible for hurting her family, she would very likely have taken out their anger on us and I’m not really in the mood to serve a stand-in for a beating someone else earned.”

We didn’t know nothing about that,” the first man said.  “It wasn’t personal or anything.”

It wasn’t personal for you,” Devlin clarified.  “Did you think it was personal, Akumi?”

She responded by cracking the knuckles on one hand, a finger at a time. 

Yeah,” Devlin said.  “I think you’re going to have a tough time convincing her of that point.  But, by all means, feel free to try.”

I wasn’t sure how much of the back and forth between Devlin and Akumi was scripted or improvised.  I certainly wasn’t sure how serious either of them were.  He’d stop her before she killed anyone – I was reasonably confident in that – but would he even be able to stop her from assaulting them?  Could Mila?  How close did he think he could come to unleashing the sort of violence I’d seen at the theater without losing the ability to rein it back in again?

What do you want?”  The first man repeated. 

Devlin tapped an index finger against his bottom lip and strolled casually in a small circle in front of the kidnappers, feigning deep thought on the matter.  “I honestly don’t know what you could do for us,” he said, almost as if to himself.

We know things,” the fourth man said quickly.  “More than he thought we did.  We were listening.”

More than who thought you did?”

The fourth man hesitated and, as if prompted, Akumi began to crack the knuckles on her other hand.  “He goes by Hunter,” he rushed out.

Devlin rolled his eyes.  “Of course he does.  And what’s your name?”

Ben,” he said.

Shut up, Ben!” The first man in line snapped.

Devlin delicately placed his foot in the center of Ben’s chest and pushed.  With his hands restrained and his body injured, the first man fell backwards without the ability to catch himself.  His shoulder hit the ground first, eliciting a sharp hiss of pain.

I was talking to Ben,” Devlin said.  “Don’t be rude.”

He was still speaking calmly, as if he were discussing the weather or the specifics of some recipe.  I knew that he could be cold and clinical – some might have even described him as detached, depending on the situation – but I’d never seen Devlin like this.  Even if he was just playing a part, I couldn’t see the line where his character ended and Devlin began. 

Now, Ben,” Devlin said, going down on one knee so that he was level with the kidnapper, “you were saying something about Hunter?”

Th-this is my first job with him,” Ben stuttered.  “He’s not from these parts, he said, so he needed locals to make sure he knew how to get around.”

How did he find you?”

I don’t know how, he just…he just did.  Gave us all an advance of cash to make sure we’d show up when he needed us.”

Wait,” Devlin said.  He held up a hand for emphasis.  “When did he do that?”

A month ago?” Ben guessed.  “Maybe two months?”

That tracked with the timeline we’d been assuming.  The operation to grab the Texan and Max was too well-organized and funded to be a spur of the moment thing.  As was often the case, our presence and intervention must have thrown everything into disarray and the kidnappers, desperate to keep their timeline, went off book to deal with our unplanned presence.

Although…everything didn’t quite line up neatly.  They’d brought guns to the boathouse, but there must have been easier opportunities to grab the Texan before he’d even reached that location.  After all, he hadn’t even hired bodyguards until after Mila and I encountered him at the Speakeasy.  And the sheer number of men seemed overkill, if their intention was just to snatch the Texan and Max, throw them into the back of a van, and deliver them to a mysterious third party.

I furrowed my brow as I tried to put the pieces together in my head.  Either the kidnappers had planned for someone’s intervention and had, therefore, procured additional manpower to begin with; or they’d intended only to take the Texan and Max, but had waited to make their move for some reason.

Neither option made sense.  We were missing something.

And if you’d gotten away with it?” Devlin pressed. “Where were you supposed to take us?”

Hunter didn’t tell us that,” Ben said. “Thought that someone might decide to cut him out of the job.”

Devlin scoffed. “And I’m sure that you fine, upstanding professional kidnappers would never have thought to do something like that.” He waited for a beat or two before speaking again. “What else do you have? Because a fake name and a non-answer isn’t going to be enough to stop my friend from taking out her frustrations on you.”

While Ben had been the first to give up information, none of the other men seemed particularly eager to stop him from talking. If the men weren’t personally loyal to Hunter – and how could they be, if they’d only just met him within the month? – they had no reason to keep any pertinent information to themselves. Faced with the threat of Akumi’s personal attention, and lacking the motivation to protect their employer, they would talk. The fact that they weren’t talking, then, led me to believe that they honestly didn’t know much about Hunter’s master plan or who was really paying their bills.

He didn’t call them,” Ben said, after an incredibly long stretch of silence. “The client, I mean. He never called them.”

What do you mean?” Devlin asked.

Hunter tried to keep it secret, but a few of the other guys, we…we started wondering if this was all just a set up. You know, get us to do the heavy lifting and then leave us behind or kill us after everything’s done. After he killed the guys who shot up the boathouse…”

You figured you shouldn’t be loyal to him, if he wasn’t going to be loyal to you?” Devlin suggested.

Ben shook his head. “It wasn’t about loyalty. More like we realized that he was capable of it, and most of us didn’t think he had it in him.”

Something about that sentence confirmed one of Devlin’s ideas. He nodded softly to himself and his lips moved soundlessly. Then he shook it off and returned his attention to the restrained man. “So, you went snooping around for something to use against him, if it came to that. What’d you find?”

After the boathouse thing, Hunter got us all to go dark for a while. There’s an old shooting range out in Wylie that shut down a few years ago. We were hiding out there while Hunter worked out how to get to you.”

I made a mental note to look into the shooting range, but I doubted anything useful would come up during a routine search. And, by the time either Max or I assembled the tools and equipment necessary for a more thorough investigation, Hunter would have long since scrubbed the building of anything that might lead to him. Still, there was always the odd chance that something useful might have been left behind.

He kept this laptop with him,” Ben continued. “Bulky thing, but he wasn’t ever more than a few feet away from it. One night, he told us all to keep watch and went into the range’s office. I went off to see what he was doing.”

And?” Devlin prompted.

He was talking to someone. I couldn’t open the door without tipping him off, but he wasn’t being real quiet. The other person didn’t sound like a person…it was like a computer, you know?”

Digitizing one’s voice wasn’t uncommon, in our line of work. With effort, the process could be reversed, but it wasn’t generally worth the trouble. If someone wanted to hire Hunter anonymously, an VoIP connection and a digitizer would be more than enough to keep someone’s identity secret. It didn’t point to anyone in particular.

What did they say, Ben?” Devlin asked.

Whoever it was on the other end of the call wanted him to find something,” Ben said. “They said there was a chance that it might be here, in Texas, and that it was important to keep an eye out for it.”

Devlin’s voice lowered slightly, just a fraction, but the effect made him sound much more menacing. “Did the voice say exactly what it was?”

Hunter asked, but they wouldn’t tell him,” Ben stammered out. “They said he didn’t need to worry about it but, when we, uh…”

When you threw me in the back of a van,” Devlin finished, twirling his finger in the air for emphasis. “I know this part. Get to the things I haven’t already figured out.”

When we had you in custody,” Ben continued, “Hunter was supposed to look for a black box. They said it’d be small enough that you could hide it on your body somewhere. And if you didn’t have it, then…”

My mind started to race. The black box…the black box that Barrett had stolen from Atlanta? We still didn’t know what the purpose of the box actually was, but I couldn’t connect the dots in my head. Someone had hired men to kidnap the Texan, presumably to get their hands on Max. But that same individual – or individuals, I supposed – had also wanted their hirelings to pursue a box that hadn’t even been in the same state?

I caught Barrett’s eyes and saw that he was trying to run the numbers himself. Devlin looked at me, then Barrett, and then focused his attention back on Ben. He didn’t turn away quick enough for me to miss the furious glint in his eyes.

What else, Ben?”

Nothing! That’s it! Hunter didn’t tell any of us about it, so I just figured…I just figured it might be a little extra bonus, is all. But then your friend hit us and…”

And that’s all she wrote,” Devlin said. “I’m going to be honest with you, Ben. I don’t know that anything you said is going to be all that useful to me.”

Ben, and the other kidnappers who had remained silent thus far, flinched at the mere implication.

But,” Devlin continued, after a dramatic pause, “I’m going to talk it over with my associates. Because I’m a man of my word and all that. If we decide it’s useful, maybe we will just turn you over to the cops.”

You said you weren’t going to get them involved!”

The only alternative is that I leave you to my friend’s tender mercies,” Devlin said. “Because we can’t have you guys coming after us again, now can we? So, while we’re talking this over, why don’t the four of you decide which outcome you’d prefer.”

He gestured for us to follow him back into the main area of the computer shop. The Texan was right on his heels and the rest of us came in pairs – Mila and Michel, Kira and Akumi, Barrett and myself. When we were a safe distance away from the back room, but not too close to the front entrance, Devlin seemed to deflate.

We know more than we did,” he said, mostly to himself. “Even if we don’t exactly what we do know, now.”

Akumi stepped forward, intent on saying something, but her mouth snapped shut as the front entrance to the computer shop banged open. Both Akumi and Mila crouched, hands flashing to hidden weapons; only Mila relaxed slightly when we recognized Max, gasping for air.

What is it?” I asked her. That pinprick of doubt, of uncertainty, had returned.

I went back to the abandoned theater,” Max said, between gulps of air. “To get some things that would help me go through the audio files from the earbuds.”

And?”

Someone was following me,” Max said. “I think…I think, somehow, he knows who I am.”

Chapter 128

It was easier to deal with my parents than I would have expected. Virginia might have calmed the waters, after Barrett and my sudden departure, but that didn’t fully explain how accommodating Raymond and Elizabeth were. Ultimately, I decided to attribute their changed behavior to our earlier conversation. They knew that something was going on with me – less than Virginia, although she didn’t really as many details as she probably thought she did – and that knowledge, all on its own, seemed to be enough that they were content to give me a little more leeway.

Relatively speaking, of course. Even the most relaxed version of Elizabeth was still fairly high strung. She insisted on another dinner date, including both me and my fake husband, so that I could tell her more about my situation. I had no intention of doing that, but I agreed to the request, just so that we could head over to the secondhand computer shop posthaste.

Max, Devlin, and the Texan had taken the van and headed off to the meeting spot. Akumi and Kira would, presumably, steal someone’s car from the parking lot in order to facilitate their own trip. We could’ve ridden with them, but I wasn’t in the mood for anyone’s company at that exact moment. Even Barrett’s uncharacteristically silent presence grated against my nerves. I wanted to be alone to process what Devlin had said. But, since that wasn’t in the cards, I steeled myself to power through.

Did you drive?” I asked Barrett.

I rented a car,” he said. “Elizabeth wanted us to ride in together, though. I think she was hoping to catch you where we’re supposed to be staying, so she could guilt you into coming with us.”

Lucky her. I just happened to be here anyway.”

Barrett shrugged. “For a given value of lucky, I guess. So, uh…where are we headed?”

I remembered that Barrett had, mostly through circumstance, not actually been to the secondhand shop. In fact, he knew very little about the Texan or much of what had been going on in the city. How much he’d been able to overhear or piece together wasn’t immediately clear to me, though.

There’s a shop,” I said. “I can give you directions until we get close. We should probably park the car a block or two away, though.”

Just being cautious?” Barrett asked. “Or are you worried that someone might be following us?”

Until that moment, I actually hadn’t been considering that possibility. Now that he’d spoken the words out loud, however, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that he was onto something. The kidnappers were being bundled up by Akumi; even if they gained the will to struggle against her, none of them had the skills or physical capacity to do much to her. Certainly not with Kira, wounded as he might have been, standing nearby. And I was also fairly certain that none of the groups walking past us recognized me.

Still, there was a needling sensation right at the back of my neck and no amount of internal rationalizing seemed able to get rid of it. Instead, I shrugged, and gestured for Barrett to lead us to his car.

The rental was an unremarkable sedan, khaki-colored and almost clinically boring. It was the kind of car an aging English teacher might drive to work, not the vehicle a high-flying cat burglar would pick for himself.

Barrett noticed me examining the car. He ran a head over his scalp, almost nervously, and chuckled. “I don’t normally find myself staying in the same town long enough to worry about being spotted,” he said. “So this is a new one for me.”

Life is all about overcoming challenges,” I replied. It took a minor exertion for me to give him a slight smile. “Come on, let’s get on the road.”

We drove through Dallas at a respectable, law-abiding speed, and followed every rule of the road with exacting detail. The idea that someone might have tailed us lingered at the edge of my thoughts the entire way. In the distant past, Devlin and I had taken a job in Prague that had necessitated extended surveillance of a target. While we’d been casing the target, he’d spent hours lecturing about all the ways one could spot a tail, how to follow someone without being seen, and about a half dozen different techniques for losing someone without seeming to have noticed them.

I ran through all of those and put each one into practice, as best as I could. I noticed no suspicious cars and recognized no familiar faces appearing in unlikely places. Anxiety and paranoia mixed and mingled into an nauseating feeling in my gut, but I couldn’t make myself relax.

He was wrong, you know,” Barrett said. He didn’t look away from the road as he spoke.

Wrong about what?”

You. I mean, what you did. Even if he did have it under control – and I don’t think he actually did, but that’s not important – you couldn’t have known that. You did what you thought was right.”

Personal experience with Devlin’s inexplicable ability to get out of near-certain death traps gave me a slightly different perspective than Barrett. If my ex-husband said he knew what he was doing, it was just smarter to bet on him than against him. Even when he didn’t have an idea, or when he was playing it entirely by ear, he still always found a way out. Either the universe provided or he made the universe provide.

Or…well, at least he’d always survived in the past.

You don’t understand,” I said quietly. My eyes stayed fixed on the rear view mirror.

I don’t,” Barrett admitted. “I don’t do the whole team thing, for obvious reasons. But I do know that people aren’t supposed to leave their partners in trouble, no matter what conversations were had beforehand. Do you really think he would’ve hesitated to go in after you, if he thought you were in danger?”

I didn’t answer the question out loud, but my own thoughts spoke loud and clear inside of my head: of course not. To save me, Devlin would’ve walked over hot glass and blown the entire operation. I mean…he would’ve done that for any of us, really. But that selfless streak was heavily influenced by a nearly suicidal streak that had always worried and frustrated me. Since our conscription into the Lady’s service, it seemed he’d kept a tight leash on those tendencies. Did that mean, then, that I’d somehow picked them up in his place?

A shudder ran through me at that thought.

If it had been me,” Barrett said, “in that situation, I wouldn’t have read you the riot act for doing it. That’s all I’m saying.”

Would you have done it?” I asked. “If you had a teammate, I mean. And if you knew – or at least suspected – that something bad might happen to them. Would you have gone in to the theater?”

Nope,” Barrett said immediately. The answer was so quick, so sharp, that it momentarily took me aback. He waited a few moments before elaborating. “But I’m not a good person. You, on the other hand, are.”

I scoffed. “Let’s not forget how we met.”

You don’t follow the law. That makes you a criminal, but it doesn’t make you bad. Anyone who’s spent more than ten seconds around you would’ve known that you aren’t the type to stand by and let bad things happen to people.”

What might have been a glowing compliment to anyone who wasn’t a habitual lawbreaker came off instead as a gentle rebuke to me. Barrett might not have said it explicitly, but I could read between the lines: you’re too good for this work and that’s going to get you in trouble.

Well, I was already in trouble and my employment with the Lady had nothing to do with any sentimentality. No point trying to catch that had long since sailed away.

The rest of the drive passed by in silence. My vigil became less intense after a while and I settled into a rhythm of glancing at the rear and side mirrors every few minutes, just in case. Nothing abnormal popped out at me. He parked the car in an empty lot two blocks away from the used computer shop and we walked the rest of the way there. Barrett started patting himself down for a moment, which allowed me to get a few steps ahead of him.

The Texan stood on the curb, taking a long drag from a stubby cigarette, eyes closed in thought. When he removed the cigarette from his lips and opened his eyes, he looked directly at Barrett and me.

Now that wasn’t the plan, was it?” the Texan asked.

It worked, didn’t it?” I countered. Devlin might have been able to take shots at me, but I’d be damned if some nameless cowboy would do the same.

The Texan raised both hands in surrender and my eyes temporarily tracked the lazy, winding trail of smoke rising from the cigarette between his fingers. “Don’t think I’m complaining about it,” he said quickly. “I’ve been around for enough to know that nothing ever goes the way you think it will. Best you can do is figure it out in the end.”

You were in the field?” I asked.

He smiled. “I’ve heard stories, I mean.”

I decided against following that line of thought. Instead, I stepped closer to him, leaving Barrett just a few steps behind me, and whispered quickly under my breath. “Who else is here?”

The twins, with a few uncomfortable fellas all tied up. The driver, your bodyguard, and the other one…what does he even do?”

What about Max?”

Wanted to break down the equipment,” he said. “Why? Should she be here?”

Barrett knew nothing about Max: nothing about her connection to the Community, her connection to me…hell, he didn’t even know she existed. I wanted to keep some things secret as long as possible.

If you get a chance, tell her to stay in the wind until we need her.”

The Texan, mercifully, didn’t waste any time asking questions. He nodded and then flicked his eyes up over my shoulder. I turned in time to see Barrett approaching, a lighter clenched in one hand.

Mind if I borrow one of those?” Barrett asked the Texan. “I forgot mine in the car.”

With an expert, practiced flick of his wrist, the Texan both opened his pack of cigarettes and made one of them protrude slightly ahead of the others. Barrett whistled in appreciation before selecting the protruding cigarette and lighting it.

So?” Barrett asked, after two or three drags. “What’s next?”

Way I see it,” the Texan said, “we got a lot of unanswered questions to deal with.”

Who are the kidnappers working for?” I suggested. “What did they want with you?”

I wouldn’t mind knowing how they’re getting paid, either.” The Texan considered his pack of cigarettes and then decided against lighting another one. “Can learn a lot about a man with that.”

If it’s electronic, I…know someone who might be able to follow the trail,” I said, quickly amending what I’d been thinking due to Barrett’s presence. “That might not lead anywhere, though. Anyone putting in the slightest amount of effort could make it…not impossible, but too difficult for it to be a plausible tactic. Or so I hear.”

No such thing as bad intel,” the Texan said, touching a finger to the side of his nose. “Anything we can find about these fellas is something we need to find out about them.”

Here’s something you guys seem to be overlooking,” Barrett said. He lowered his cigarette which, somehow, was almost halfway finished. “Did the kidnappers have any other jobs while they were in Dallas?”

I blinked at him.

I mean, think about it,” Barrett said. “They weren’t the most highly trained team, so it’s not likely their financier went through the trouble of flying them over from overseas. But that wasn’t a group of garden variety local thugs, either.”

What’re you saying, son?”

Barrett’s eye twitched at the last word, but he didn’t show any other reaction. “I’m saying that, if their employer found the best squad of kidnappers within the region, but didn’t want to just hire the best, it’s possible that they were after someone with knowledge or expertise that only a Texas native would have.”

And why would he or she want that?” I asked.

Because it’s easier to catch prey on the run if you know where they’re going to run to,” Barrett said.

The three of us stood there for a beat. If Barrett was right – if he was even close to right – that meant the kidnappers had planned on their remaining targets to run. It meant that any of the local corners where someone might hide to wait for the heat to die down could be compromised already. And, most frightening of all, it would mean that the kidnappers’ financier knew enough to expect us to keep some of our people in reserve.

The pinprick at the back of my neck grew stronger.

Well, that’s ominous,” the Texan finally said.

It’s just a theory,” Barrett replied. “But it does make sense.”

Theories are one thing. Facts…now, facts are a whole different thing.”

Barrett flicked the rest of his cigarette into the street. “Let’s go get some facts then, shall we?”

The Texan opened the door into the computer shop. When Barrett and I were inside, he locked the door behind us. We walked through the building and into the back room. Most of the assorted computer odds and ends had been pushed to the side, clearing out a space for the four kidnappers.

They were awake, at least, although their pained expressions made it clear that they weren’t exactly happy about that development. Each of them was securely tied down with knotted ropes that linked their wrists and ankles, in addition to handcuffs for added effect.

Akumi and Devlin stood at one side of the room; Mila, Kira, and an obviously impaired Michel stood at the other. All four of them were facing the center of the room, intently focusing on the men. At the sound of the back room’s door closing, only Devlin glanced up. His eyes went to the Texan first; then, they met my gaze briefly before slowly, deliberately, sliding over to take in Barrett at my side.

I prepared myself for another scathing rebuke. None came. Instead, Devlin rolled his shoulders one at a time and blew out a long breath. When he spoke, it was with the voice I’d come to associate with his coldest, most ruthlessly focused persona.

Well,” he said to the restrained kidnappers. “Now that we’re all here, I think it’s about time we get down to business, don’t you?”

Chapter 127

The dregs of adrenaline in my system, which were only just beginning to bleed away, kept me in a state of heightened energy, but it wasn’t a good energy.  I should’ve been ecstatic.  Once again, we’d pulled off an impossible job, despite the obstacles thrown in our way.  Akira had received superficial injuries, probably during his kidnapping, but nothing permanent had been done to him.  Kira appeared happy with that outcome and I, after watching her deal with the kidnappers, was more than willing to keep her in a state of contentment.  Michel’s injuries, per Mila, were treatable and she’d gotten him away from the center safely.  And we’d rescued Devlin before the lead kidnapper and his men had been able to successfully steal him away from us and deliver him to whoever was paying their bills.

Everything had gone right, after a fashion.  Hadn’t it?

“Am I missing something?” Barrett asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said, mostly to myself.  Then, “No.  No, you’re not.  It’s just been a rough day, that’s all.”

Barrett grinned.  “I’m really hoping that you’re just prone to understatement; otherwise, I’d hate to see what it’s like on a legitimately terrible day.”

“You really wouldn’t.  Trust me.”

His grin remained.  I figured there was about a fifty percent chance that he was really that elated, in the wake of our success, and a fifty percent chance that he was just pretending to be for my benefit.  Seeing his broad smile did lift my mood a little bit, although not nearly enough for me to smile back at him.

We made our way down to the loading area.  By the time we reached the rest of my team, the scene had changed slightly.  Kira was standing under his own power, although he did seem to be favoring one leg slightly.  His sister moved amongst the fallen kidnappers with a practiced, professional air and relieved them of their weapons, which she tossed lightly to land on the ground in front of Kira.  The victims of her assault were alive and in varying states of consciousness.  One man lifted a hand to stop Akumi from taking away his gun.  She slapped it away, almost without thought, and took the weapon anyway.  The man’s outraised hand fell limp to the ground without any further protest or effort.

Devlin leaned against a wall, cracking the knuckles on his good hand one at a time and, judging from the slight movements of his lips, talking his way through some problem.  Maybe he’d noticed something I’d missed and, together, we’d be able to identify what the problem with this job had been.

“What happened?’ I asked as I approached.

“I don’t know what happened,” he replied.

“What, did he catch you off guard?”

“No,” Devlin said.  He raised his head and met my eyes.  Instead of gratitude or jubilation, all I saw in his expression was…not quite anger, but something very near to it.  “What I don’t know is why in God’s name you’d risk yourself coming in here to get me?”

I stopped and blinked, taken aback by the heat in his voice and on his face.  For a moment, I couldn’t even think of a response.

“I don’t know why,” Devlin continued, “you would abandon the plan, which we all discussed and agreed to, and put all of us at risk instead of just one.”

While we had discussed the plan and, under duress, I’d agreed to allow him to be taken captive in order to protect the larger majority of the team, he couldn’t possibly have thought I would seriously leave him behind.  We’d already had that fight.  The idea of abandoning Devlin – of abandoning any of my team – to the ministrations of someone capable of ordering something like the massacre at the boathouse was absurd on its face.  I opened my mouth to tell him as much, but he wasn’t finished.

“And I don’t know why the fuck,” Devlin said, his voice growing in intensity instead of volume, “he’s here with you!”

Devlin jabbed a finger over my right shoulder.  I didn’t need to turn to know that Barrett stood there, but I turned anyway.  Barrett’s body language was deceptively relaxed.  Six months ago, I might not have spotted the signs of tension in the way he planted his feet or in his slow even breaths.  Now, however, I could recognize what it looked like when someone was ready for a fight.

“I’m here,” Barrett said, “because the lady asked me to be here.  She’s here because, for one reason or another, it was important that she save you from whoever these kidnappers are.  And you’re there, I guess, because you let some low-rent killers for hire get the drop on you.  Does that about answer all your questions?”

I mentally revised my assessment of the situation.  Barrett wasn’t ready for a fight; he was spoiling for one.

Devlin lowered his hand slowly and pushed off of the wall.  Taking deliberate steps, he crossed the ground until he was no more than three feet away from me and only four or five away from Barrett.  He stopped there, glared at Barrett for a subjective eternity, and then refocused on me.

“We talked about this,” he said in a low voice.  He was still loud enough for Barrett to hear, but the volume was designed to let the cat burglar know that he wasn’t part of the conversation.  “Do you have any idea how bad this could have gotten, Sarah?  What they would’ve done if they’d gotten their hands on you?”

“I know what they did to Michel,” I snapped.  His tone, while unsettling, rubbed me the wrong way.  I’d saved him, dammit.  I didn’t expect him to genuflect, but a little appreciation wouldn’t have gone too far.  “I know that, because I came in after you, we just might have saved his life.”

“Mila would’ve found him,” Devlin said, although he didn’t sound absolutely sure of that.  “But that’s not why you came in here, is it?  That’s not why you decided to ignore the plan we all decided on.”

My jaw dropped then, as realization dawned on me, snapped shut once more.  Devlin had been on the same comms as the rest of us.  Just because he’d temporarily been unable to respond due to the lead kidnapper, he was still preternaturally capable of splitting his attention enough to track multiple conversations at once.

He took a little step closer to me and pressed his point.  “You were supposed to stay on the periphery of this,” he said.  “You and Max were our operations team.  But then you wanted to be a spotter.  And I agreed to that, so what did you do next?  You decided you wanted to be a part of the actionThat’s why you came in after us, isn’t it?  And everything else that happened was good – hell, it was great – but that isn’t the point.”

“And what is the point?” I asked.

I forced myself to sound defiant as the question left my lips, but I certainly didn’t feel that way.  Devlin was being direct, honest, and brutal…but he wasn’t wrong.

“The point,” he said, now in a voice pitched low enough that even I could just barely catch his words, “is that you decided that the two of you had a better idea of how to handle this than your teamThat’s the point.”

I blinked, hard, to keep tears from my eyes.  Devlin and I had fought before, both professionally and personally.  That much was nothing new; we were both passionate people, with a tendency to speak our minds before considering the consequences.  What stung me the most about his invective this time was that I couldn’t, for the life of me, find a way to defend myself against the accusations.

Barrett, however, could.  He stepped forward so that he was level with me and, therefore, even closer to Devlin.  “Sarah saved your life,” he said, “and this is how you repay her?  With insults?  God, I don’t know why she went through the trouble.”

Devlin’s hand tightened into a fist, but he kept himself from throwing a punch as he turned his gaze away from me in favor of Barrett.  “You think they were going to kill me?  That’s really how you read that?”

“I’m a simple man,” Barrett said.  “I see a dozen or so men with guns, a windowless van, and a bunch of kidnappers, then yeah.  I start thinking there might be some murder in the air.  What, are you saying you were about to fight them, all on your own?”

Devlin spat out a scornful laugh.  “You idiot.  You absolute idiot.  They weren’t going to kill me.  If that’s what the kidnappers wanted, they would’ve done that as soon as I walked in the building.”

“In the middle of all these witnesses?  I think not.”

“They came at you with knives, didn’t they?” Devlin asked.  “In the middle of the park?  And someone tried to shoot up our car in broad daylight, surrounded by potential witnesses.  You think suddenly now these people are getting shy about leaving a trail?”

The questions and the scorn were aimed purely at Barrett, but I couldn’t help but feel the sting of his words as personal attacks.  Barrett was, after all, only saying out loud the conclusions that I had come to internally.

“This wasn’t about me,” Devlin continued.  “It wasn’t even about the Texan.  Not really, anyway.”

I wasn’t sure if Barrett had ever heard us say anything about the Texan, but he didn’t waste time asking for clarifying details.  “And, since you’re such a super genius, I’m sure you know exactly what this was all about then, don’t you?”

And, as Barrett asked the question, I did know.  In the whirlwind rush of events, with the violence and the subterfuge and the potential betrayal, I’d allowed myself to lose sight of a single, simple fact: this was about Max.  It had always been about Max.

There were too many things in motion for them to have started upon our arrival.  An operation like this took planning and consideration to minimize the variables and control the scene.  The fact that the community theater and the center at large were empty probably wasn’t an accident.  If I went through the accounts later – and I fully intended to do so – I was fairly certain that I’d find someone had paid for the entire building, so as to reduce the accidental bystanders to a minimum.  And the lead kidnapper…he’d told Devlin that the massacre at the boathouse had been the work of some untrained, overzealous hires.  Those had probably been locals, unfamiliar with the plan at large, who the lead kidnapper had picked up to round out his ranks.

Pieces fell into place, but not all of them.  There were still questions that needed answers.

“It was always about leverage,” Devlin said.  “They couldn’t get the Texan, so they took one of his guards, so that they could use her to get to him.  And when they succeeded, they would’ve used him to get to their real target.”

“And that is?”

Devlin didn’t say anything.  There was no way to explain Max and why someone wanted her, without also brushing against the Community and the Mouse.  If we did that, there was every possibility that Barrett might be able to sniff out more of my secrets than I wanted to share.

“That doesn’t matter,” I said quickly.  “We don’t know what they would’ve done to you, Devlin.  If they needed to incentivize a specific person, you know they would have tortured you.”

“They wouldn’t have risked the merchandise, for one thing,” Devlin said.  “For another, the leader wasn’t that kind of person.”

“What, he’s the friendly neighborhood kind of kidnapper?” Barrett asked.

Devlin ignored him.  “That guy would kill you, in self defense or for money or because he didn’t like you very much.  He’s definitely a murderer.  But he isn’t a sadist.”

“You’re so sure about that?” Barrett pressed.

Devlin’s fist was clenched so tight that his knuckles were taut against the bone, but he kept speaking in the same forceful, even tone.  Frankly, it was more frightening than if he’d been screaming his head off.

“He’d have shot me in the head before inflicting pain on me, just for the sake of it,” he said to Barrett.  Then, turning back to me, he added, “Look at the evidence; when the two of blundered into this and forced him to run, did he kill any of us on the way?  He had more than enough opportunity, didn’t he?”

He kept making valid points, forcing me to confront the preconceptions I’d brought into the building with me.  I didn’t know enough about people in the moment to think as quickly or as accurately as Devlin.  Considering that his job mostly involved sneaking into buildings no one thought to secure, Barrett probably also didn’t have a wealth of interpersonal knowledge to draw from.  I should’ve trusted the expert; instead, I’d let the adrenaline guide me into making a mistake.

“We got Akira back,” I said.  “And we got you.  So, yeah, maybe I shouldn’t have come in after you, but everything worked out, didn’t it?”

“I was interrogating him,” Devlin said, stretching out the words for effect.  “I was learning as much as I could about him, in the hopes that it would give me something about his boss.  You were listening, weren’t you?”

Stunned into wordlessness, all I could do was open and close my mouth without producing any sound.  Even Barrett didn’t have a quick response to Devlin’s accusations.  Peripherally, I noticed the twins speaking softly to each other in Japanese.  Kira’s eyes flickered over to meet mine for an instant before he looked away.  Akumi seemed to have dismissed the three of us entirely.

“Max?” Devlin said, turning away from me and touching his earbud.  The physical gesture wasn’t necessary – I’d broken him of that habit years ago – but it did serve to make it absolutely clear that he’d moved on to a different topic.  “How much of that did you get?”

My own earbud had been silent during Devlin’s excoriation and I’d temporarily forgotten that Max was likely listening to the entire exchange.  I could be embarrassed about that later, I figured.  In private.  With a bottle of something strong to wash down the bitter truths Devlin had thrown in my face.

“How much of, uh…how much of what?” Max asked.

“My conversation with the lead kidnapper,” Devlin said.  “I know I got pretty far from you, so I’m not sure how much actually transmitted.”

“Not much,” she said.  “But I think I might be able to get some of it out of the device’s local memory.  Between that and what you remember…”

“I guess that’ll have to be enough.”  Devlin sighed and ran a hand through his hair in frustration.  He didn’t shoot Barrett or me any looks but he didn’t really have to.  “What’s going on with Mila and Michel?”

“CJ created a distraction so that they could get out of the area,” Max responded.  “They’re out of range now, but it seemed like she was going to get him to my dad, so that he could help them.”

Devlin let his hand drop as he turned to the twins.   “Akumi?  You know where the Texan was hiding out.  Can I trust you to get these guys over there so we can start asking them questions?”

She shared an intense exchange with her brother before switching back to English and answering his question.  “I can do that,” she said.  “Although I will want to ask them some questions of my own, as well.”

“Right now, we both want the same thing,” Devlin said.  “As long as you aren’t asking them questions in a way that’s going to render them incoherent, I’ve got no problems with that.”

Akumi nodded in a way that made it clear she would have done what she wanted, regardless of Devlin’s position on the matter.  She started to say something else but stopped when Kira suddenly slumped to one side.  She caught him and moved the majority of his weigh onto her shoulders.

“We will see you there?” Akumi asked.

Devlin swept his gaze over the defeated, still-groaning men and then nodded back at her.  After helping Kira settle into a seated position, Akumi started to drag the kidnappers into a large clump of men.  While any single of them had a considerable weight advantage over her, the woman showed no difficulty with their bulk.

Devlin turned his head slightly, so that Barrett would be visible at the very edge of his field of vision.  “You’re involved now,” he said, not bothering to hide the disdain in his voice.  “You can help Sarah make whatever excuses she needs to with her parents.  Whenever you’re finished with that, she knows where we’ll be.”

Devlin inhaled, seemed to be on the verge of saying something else, and subsided with only a little shake of his head instead.  He walked away, rolling his uninjured wrist idly as he went, and didn’t speak another word to either of us.

That left Barrett and me standing there awkwardly, while Akumi continued to drag the kidnappers across the ground.  After a minute of that, he blew air out through his nostrils and faked a cough.  “Does he always react to rescues like that?  Seems a bit ungrateful to me.”

I wanted to say something snappy, or smart, or even to chuckle, but I couldn’t find anything like that in me at that moment.  I lifted my head and set my shoulders instead, resolving not to allow Devlin’s words to visibly affect me, until we weren’t still – technically – in the middle of a job.

“You heard him,” I said.  “Let’s say our goodbyes and figure out what’s really going on here.”

Barrett watched me with a cool, appraising eye for several more seconds.  Just when I was afraid he’d say or ask something that would force me to deal with what Devlin had said, he shrugged and mercifully walked off, back into the building.  After I took a moment to make sure my mask of neutrality was firmly in place, I joined him.

Chapter 126

Without our muscle, our driver, and lacking the shot-calling expertise that Devlin brought to the team, I found myself struggling to connect one thought with another. There were too many unknown variables that I was aware of, probably even more that I hadn’t yet considered, and my only ally’s motivation was still a mystery. If I made the wrong call, it wasn’t just possible that the kidnappers would get away with Devlin. They might draw the noose around me and Barrett as well, so they could spirit us away to whatever shadowy location they had in mind.

On the bright side, I wouldn’t have to worry about the Mouse discovering my identity when time ran out. I’d probably be dead, of course, but that was just incidental.

I need them scared,” I said to Barrett, speaking the words before my better angels could convince me otherwise. “They’ve already got Devlin, so the job’s essentially already blown.”

You sent him in there alone?”

No,” I said, “but the person who was supposed to be watching his back is incapacitated.”

Shouldn’t we save them, then? Three people would do a lot better than two, especially when one of them is pretty clearly uncomfortable around guns.”

I couldn’t really protest to that. I’d taken a gun, because it would have been idiotic to refuse the weapon, but my discomfort was readily apparent. Hitting someone with a stun gun was one thing. They’d eventually recover and my conscience could handle inflicting pain on certified Bad Guys. But taking a life?

A not insignificant portion of my life had been spent on the outskirts of polite society. As a matter of course, I broke the law on a regular basis. I’d associated with all manner of criminals, aided and abetted lawbreakers on several different continents; and presumably racked up an impressive number of crimes under my various false identities. Our careers put us closer to death than any civilian could imagine; that looming sense of potential fatalities had only grown sharper and more ominous since the Lady had come into our lives.

People were going to die. They already had, after all. Still, I couldn’t see myself directly or even indirectly killing someone. I knew that it was probably an unreasonable stance to take, all things considered, but I took it anyway.

We don’t have the time,” I said out loud. “She’s tough. If they wanted her permanently out of the way, the kidnappers would have done it already. And, if they aren’t willing to go that far, then it’s only a matter of time before she gets out on her own.”

You think she’ll give us some backup when she gets free, then?” Barrett asked.

I shrugged. “I think she’ll find her way to wherever we are. She’s got her own goals and, for the moment, those goals align with what I want.”

Which is?”

I want the kidnappers stopped,” I said, “before they can get away with anyone. I want to keep this as quiet as possible because someone brought my family here. And I want to make it out of this without making my life any more complicated than it already is.”

Barrett gave me a fierce, tight grin. “I think that last bit’s a lost cause, personally, but those first two? I think we might be able to make that happen.”

An answering grin appeared on my face, propelled by the sickening flood of adrenaline in my system. With effort, I tamped down on the urge to rush ahead haphazardly. Barrett and I moved forward, determined but deliberate, through the back of the arts building. We encountered no other guards or kidnappers. Either Mila had miscounted or overestimated their numbers, or they were congregating in a manner designed to protect their escape route. I hoped for the former, even as I accepted the latter as far more likely.

When we were close to the loading bay – perhaps two or three rooms away – I held up a hand to stop Barrett from continuing.

Max? Do any of these rooms have windows overlooking the exterior?”

One second,” she said. Then, a moment later, “There’s a viewing room nearby that’s used when artists request natural light. Is that the kind of thing you mean?”

That’ll have to do,” I said. I relayed that information to Barrett, who immediately began picking locks on the nearest doors in search of the viewing room. When he’d moved away far enough, I lowered my voice so that only Max would be able to hear me. “How are you still in contact with us? These earbuds have pretty limited range.”

I moved closer,” Max said. “I figured everyone was focused on going deeper into the building, so…should I not have done that?”

It was definitely useful. My usual equipment had spoiled me over the years. I just took it for granted that, as long as my team members weren’t spelunking or standing inside of an MRI machine, they’d be able to hear my voice. The fact that Max had taken it upon herself to stay within transmission range was a boon even though, at the same time, it felt ill-advised for some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Found it,” Barrett said. Might want to hurry up. It looks like they’re almost ready to get out of here.”

I put aside my thoughts about Max and the placement of the cart, then joined Barrett inside the viewing room, at a large four-panel window looking out over the back of the arts building. The exterior appeared to be a bog standard loading area, probably to unpack larger installations or to deliver props for the community theater. An oversized, windowless van was parked at the end of the dock, releasing a steady stream of thick smoke from its tailpipe. I counted four different men standing in formation around the van.

No guns?” I asked Barrett.

He shook his head. “They have them,” he said. “You can tell by how they’re standing. But they must be concealed weapons. Which honestly makes sense.”

I would’ve realized that on my own, if my mind hadn’t been overclocking for so long. The kidnappers were willing to kill, but their leader wasn’t stupid. The snippet of conversation I’d listened in on told me that much. Silenced weapons in a crowded, noisy atmosphere like the State Park would be acceptable, given that they weren’t used when the general population would notice. But high powered, automatic weaponry? If someone decided to start peppering the area with rifle rounds, someone would notice and things would devolve rather quickly after that. There were too many guns among the fair goers for something like that to go well.

I could use that.

Alright,” I said. “Here’s the plan. We need them to think that they’re blown. Their leader is too calm, too collected. If this situation gets unmanageable, he’s only got three options.”

Kill the hostages,” Barrett said, “try to get away before too many bystanders get involved, or cut his losses and make a break for it.”

Precisely. So, we need to restrict his choices, so that he does what we want him to do.”

And how are we going to do that?”

I thought furiously about the dilemma and, while I was still drawing up plans and counter-plans in my head, the men around the van moved. They stood up straighter, drew closer to the van, and their eyes all turned to look in the same direction. I knew what that meant.

Max,” I said, “tell me that you’re close enough for us to connect with Devlin’s line.”

It won’t be clear,” Max said. “There’s too many walls between us and I can’t do anything to clean up the signal in the short-term.”

Anything’s better than nothing.” I waited for the earbud to click twice before I spoke, mentally willing my words to reach Devlin’s ears. “Devlin, listen to me and don’t say anything. I’m in a position where I can see where they’re taking you. We’re going to try to cause a distraction, maybe give you a little bit of wiggle room. We need you to secure Akumi’s brother. If you can’t do that, at least find a way to let us know whether or not he’s even in the van. Do that and then get out. We’ll handle the rest.”

We will?” Barrett asked. He stroked his chin idly for a few seconds. “I guess so, huh?”

I looked around the room for implements I could weaponize. The only items that seemed potentially useful were art supplies, probably left over from the last artist to use the viewing room. Palettes, an easel, an assortment of paint brushes…exactly the type of things one would expect to find in an arts center and, therefore, not the type of things I needed. Where was a good flash-bang when you needed one?

There simply wasn’t enough time for me to contrive anything too complicated. So, after a deep and steadying breath, I snatched up a can of paint, took two quick skipping steps, and hurled it through the window in front of us as hard as I could. I was worried momentarily that the projectile would rebound off of the glass, which would have been sufficiently embarassing to kill me outright. Instead, my aim was accurate and my throwing arm apparently just good enough; the paint can shattered the glass with a painful crashing sound.

Barrett immediately ducked out of sight, bringing his handgun up to the side of his head as he did so. “Are you crazy?” He hissed.

Probably,” I said. Then I looked around for another paint can to send flying through the now-broken window.

It turned out that I didn’t need to worry about that. My first throw had been sufficiently attention-grabbing all on its own. I couldn’t see the kidnappers, but I heard their voices cry out in alarm, disbelief, and finally anger. Anger was good. Angry people didn’t generally make good decisions.

Of course, pissing off a group of armed kidnappers who’d already proven themselves capable of murder was also not a good decision, but such was life, these days.

They can’t risk firing on us anymore than we can,” I said to Barrett. I kept hold of the paint can. “Any police attention is going to blow this thing for them. So they’re going to keep everything strictly close quarters. And they can’t afford to leavea ny witnesses behind.”

You just made us their target?” Barrett asked incredulously.

Someone nearly kicked the door into the room off of its hinges, giving Barrett his answer in a more succint fashion than I could possibly have managed. It was a heavyset man with a shaggy, wolf-like beard and peculiar scar over one eye. He held a silenced handgun, like the ones that Barrett and I had stolen earlier, in one hand; in the other, presumably to deal with work where silence was paramount, the man held a six or seven inch long serrated knife in a reverse grip.

The shaggy kidnapper’s eyes fixed immediately on Barrett. As he lowered his head and began to charge the cat burglar, Barrett returned the favor by calmly raising his weapon and aiming down the sights.

I circumvented both of them when I swung the paint can, still dangling in my grip, up in a wide arc that terminated at the shaggy man’s collarbone. The angle would’ve been impossible from my position, if my target hadn’t graciously hunched over and presented himself for maiming. Panic, adrenaline, and desperation all coalesced into a single instant, right down to the very point of impact between the can’s hard metal rim and the shaggy man’s exposed neck.

He went down – crumpled, really – and he stayed down.

You’re kind of handy to have around, aren’t you?’ Barrett asked. There was a wild, untamed smile on his face and I knew that I wore a similar one. I couldn’t help it. “Handy for me, at least. Not so much for the people you end up tangling with.”

I tried to put Barrett out of my mind, focusing on whoever might come through the door next. The paint can had been the only thing I could use non-lethally and I still wasn’t sure if I’d actually be able to use a gun, should the situation call for that. I hoped that it wouldn’t but, at the same time, I’d hoped we wouldn’t find ourselves under the gun like we were. My hopes weren’t worth much, it seemed.

A banshee-like scream of pure rage and raw emotion reached us through the shattered window panes. Barrett beat me to the window, by virtue of his longer legs, and looked out on the kidnappers. His jaw dropped slightly open.

Holy shit,” he said, awed and stunned.

What is it?” I asked, even as I crossed the room to join him. When I was in a position to see, my own mouth fell open.

Whatever means they’d used to restrain Akumi hadn’t worked for long enough.

She had at least one gun on her person that I knew about, although there were probably several more that she hadn’t revealed. In the moment, she eschewed the use of those weapons in favor of her bare hands and feet. Two of the kidnappers already lay prone on the ground, moving just enough to reveal that they were alive. As I watched, Akumi went low to throw off the aim of the nearest kidnapper, snapped out a kick that ended right where the man’s knee began. The kidnapper’s leg bent painfully at a distinctly wrong angle and, as he dropped his weapon in shock and pain, she hit him again with a brutal spinning backfist that caught him just beneath the ear.

Already three kidnappers down, and I hadn’t even seen how Akumi defeated the first two. In her professional capacity, Mila had taken down more than a few of our opposition; I’d even been in a position to see her go to work on occasion. Mila was both effective and efficient, despite the obvious glee she felt when she was able to hurt people who deserved it. I thought that, in her, I’d seen the full extent of what a person trained to inflict pain was capable of.

Not so. Akumi was in a class, all by herself.

The fourth kidnapper hesitated for a single critical instant, unsure if he should use his gun on Akumi, meet her martial arts with his own skills, or retreat from the scene entirely. She took the choice away from him when she sprung at him like a human javelin. He was heavier by at least fifty pounds, and he had a good six or seven inches on her, but simple mass was no match for technique and fury.

She hit him once in the solar plexus with a sharp, precise punch; then, when he was doubled over and gasping for breath, Akumi brought up her knee higher than I would’ve thought possible and struck him in the temple. The kidnapper, dazed and discombobulated, staggered away from her, trying in vain to get his hands up to defend himself. Akumi, surprisingly, actually allowed him to finish getting into a defensive stance. Then, with a contemptuous ease, she broke his guard, grabbed his wrist, and spun in a way that broke the kidnapper’s arm in more places than I cared to count.

The leader of the kidnappers didn’t waste the critical second that the fourth man had. Quickly assessing the battlefield, he did the math and made the only choice he could have, under the circumstances. He abandoned Devlin where they stood, practically dashed past Akumi, staying far out of her attack range, and leaped into the back of the waiting van. I couldn’t see through the van’s exterior but, after just a moment, a body tumbled back out into view. It took me a moment to recognize Kira’s features.

In her berserk state, Akumi didn’t even seem to realize that the lead kidnapper had released her brother. She stalked over to the van, looking like nothing so much as an avatar of pain, clearly focused on breaking down the remaining kidnappers into their constituent pieces. The van and its occupants, however, had no intentions of giving her a chance. As soon as Kira was free, they stepped on the gas and the van’s wheels spat assorted bits of gravel and dirt in her direction. She covered her face against the onslaught and, when she was able to see to again, the kidnappers were too far away for her to chase.

Then, and only then, did she stop her onslaught and breathe. As she exhaled, the coiled tension in her body seemed to…not quite lessen, so much as subside. Calmly, as though the evidence of her rampage wasn’t groaning and moaning all around her, she knelt to examine her brother. Finding nothing out of place, she untied him and walked over to where Devlin was still restrained.

Did you know she could do that?” Barrett asked.

I shook my head, temporarily incapable of speech.

I guess…I guess this counts as a win, then? It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

There were several members of the lead kidnapper’s organization incapacitated throughout the building. Even allowing for the possibility that most of the ones inside had retreated or been helped to retreat, there were still the four men who’d been positioned to protect the van. We could potentially get information out of them, assuming that they knew everything. After suffering Akumi’s wrath, the odds that they’d want to risk withstanding her focused attention were practically zero. On top of that, we’d successfully freed Kira and kept Devlin from joining him in captivity. So, by all accounts, it seemed to be a win.

But why, then, didn’t it feel like one?

Chapter 125

As with most aspects of a job-in-decline, it was always easier to declare what needed to be done than to figure out a way in which to do those things. Case in point: while I knew that we needed some sort of distraction that might get Devlin enough space to make an escape, I also knew that Akumi would react…poorly…to any action that put her brother in danger. If she felt that handing Devlin over to the kidnappers was the fastest way to see her twin again, she’d do it without hesitation.

So, whatever I came up with needed to placate her or, ideally, bring us closer to finding Kira. If I could convince or trick the kidnappers into a bad faith action, that might be enough to keep her on our side. But how could I do that without more information on their motives or, more importantly, the real motives of whoever had hired them? If they were following the Mouse’s commands, it was likely that they were only really looking for me or Max. If the Magi had hired them, however, they were probably operating under considerably broader terms of engagement.

And all of that was predicated on the assumption that the kidnappers hadn’t just taken him already. It was still radio silence from his end of the comms. Neither he nor Akumi were responding to us and Max’ continued checks weren’t providing any new information. Everything we were doing now could all be for nothing.

I hate working like this,” I muttered under my breath.

Like what?” Barrett asked. He held up a hand before I could answer and leaned carefully around a corner. When he was satisfied that no guards were approaching down that particular hallway, he motioned for us to continue our winding path to the theater.

Like this,” I said. “No opportunity to scout the area, no chance to actually make a plan.”

Sure doesn’t seem like you mind.”

What’s that supposed to mean?”

Instead of immediately responding, Barrett froze in place. I followed suit without a conscious thought. I hadn’t caught whatever signal or sound he had, but I was smart enough to trust a professional thief’s instincts implicitly. After several tense seconds, he started moving again, far more cautiously. His index finger inched closer to the trigger on his stolen gun, as well.

You can’t have done much planning for the Sovereign job,” Barrett said casually, as if we weren’t neck-deep in danger. “Or whatever it was that you were trying to do with the trucks and the motorcycles. I just figured this was how you guys did things.”

I tried, and failed, to find a response for that. We had been running a lot faster and looser than normal, as of late. Our freewheeling could partly attributed to my own diminished capacity, of course: it was hard to do any planning when the particulars of a surveillance system, guard rosters, and power grids were locked away behind walls of network security that I couldn’t breach. But that didn’t explain Morocco. That operation had devolved into fire and chaos all on its own, days before the Mouse forced me to lock myself out of my own system.

Do you know what we’re going to do when we get to the theater?” Barrett asked.

I appreciated the change in subject, even though I would never have admitted how much I appreciated it. Even though I didn’t have an actual answer for him, this was at least a question that two minds would tackle better than one.

Someone might be in the building or around it,” I said. “Getting him was our primary goal, but I don’t know how viable that is anymore.”

What was the backup plan, in case things didn’t go well?”

I shrugged. “You’re looking at it.”

Escape routes?”

I’m looking for those right now,” Max chimed in, through the comms. “It’s a little hard without an actual computer, but I’m on it. Hard to find official plans for the building, though.”

You’re just now looking at escape routes?” Barrett asked. He made no effort to hide his incredulity.

We only recently found out we were going into this building,” I snapped. Instants later, I realized that an angry, off-the-cuff response wasn’t going to make my team seem any more professional.

And you said you don’t normally work like this?” Barrett chuckled. “Sure. Okay. Whatever you say.”

Adrenaline, fear, and anxiety combined into something sharp and bitter in my stomach. “Listen, are you going to help or are you going to nitpick?”

I’m here, aren’t I?”

Couldn’t argue with that, even though the mixture of adrenaline and fear definitely made me want to argue with something.

So, then, help!”

How about you narrow that down a little bit? Make some suggestions, give me a goal, anything so that we’re doing something other than running, full-tilt, into a kill zone.”

We’re not,” I snapped. Then, I thought about that and realized that there might be some truth hidden there. I paused momentarily to work through my thoughts. “We’re not running into a kill zone. Remember, the kidnappers don’t want to kill Devlin. He’s not who they’re really after.”

Whoever you’re here to retrieve,” Barrett said, “wasn’t their target; apparently, they only snatched him to draw you in. But they aren’t even after you…or, more accurately, your friend? Who are they after then?”

I said nothing. The Lady’s existence was easily the most valuable, dangerous secret I possessed. Revealing that knowledge to anyone outside of my very small circle of trusted friends and compatriots didn’t just put that person in danger; because literally anyone, at any moment, could be working for the Magi or one of the Magi’s agents, a single spilled secret could be all they needed to finally draw a bead on me and my team.

That doesn’t matter,” I said. “What does matter is that, at least for the moment, any force they brought to bear is designed to contain and restrain, but not to kill.”

Even assuming that you’re right, that doesn’t mean they’d hesitate to kill us. By the time you managed to convince them that you were involved and therefore important to their ultimate mission – and don’t think I’m going to let that unanswered question go forever – they’d have already killed us all and moved on.”

He made a great point. I was decidedly not in favor of my untimely death but, at the same time, I couldn’t and wouldn’t prioritize my own well-being over Devlin’s. If the kidnappers got away with him – if they’d already gotten away with him – he’d die, too. It would just take longer.

Max?” I asked, as I started forward again.

The answer came back, quick and clipped. “Yes? What do you need?”

You aren’t getting any response from Devlin’s comms? No transmissions, no conversation?”

Nothing,” Max said. “I’ve been trying him intermittently, but he’s either too far away for the cart to reach or he doesn’t have the earbud in anymore.”

If the latter proved to be the case, that was the ballgame. I chose to focus on the former and hope for the best.

Can you ping the earbud?” I asked. “I don’t need the voice transmission, but I do need to know where he is.”

I…hadn’t thought of that,” Max said. She fell silent while she reconfigured the appropriate settings. The cart wasn’t built for on-the-fly modifications, and Max didn’t have the sort of ground level experience I did, but she was a member of the Community. She could do it, if her nerves didn’t get in the way.

Don’t suppose you’ve got another one of those for me?” Barrett asked.

I opened my mouth to say something in response – probably something unnecessarily sharp, considering my mood – but, instead of forming a response, I turned a corner and ran straight into the back of man, dressed entirely in black, with a silenced handgun in one hand. The man was as shocked by my appearance as I was by his presence. He recovered from his shock first. He regained his balance, stepped back, and started to bring his gun up to bear. With his focus on me, however, he lost the vital microsecond he needed to realize that I hadn’t rounded the corner alone.

My path had kept me close to the wall, taking sharp turns and minimizing energy expenditure. Barrett, with his longer legs, had been keeping pace with me on the outside. He swung wide, to the left of the man, and reacted on what could only have been pure instinct. Barrett’s fist flashed out, high and hard, hoping to drop the attacker in one blow. The gunman leaned away from the punch, sacrificing his focus on me so that he could deal with threat Barrett presented. The two exchanged blows and blocks for a few furious, almost entirely silent seconds, and neither man seemed to remember my presence.

Which made it incredibly easy for me to reach into my bag of tricks, withdraw my trusty stun gun, and press it as hard as possible into the gunman’s neck. Even I was surprised at the physical reaction as several hundred thousand volts of electricity fired through his body. He spasmed, jerked, and then fell to the ground in a limp, boneless heap.

What’s happening?” Max sounded like she was on the very edge of panic.

Nothing anymore,” I said. “We ran into some trouble…who won’t be troubling us anytime in the near future.”

Barrett kept his hands up in a defense position for a few seconds, then slowly lowered them to his sides. “Is that thing legal?”

I pocketed the stun gun again. “Off the shelf? Perfectly fine. This particular version, though?”

He shrugged. “How long will he be down for?”

I’d only used the stun gun on one other person since modifying it and we hadn’t stayed in the rundown part of Morocco long enough for me to time anything. “Down, as in out of commission entirely? Five or six minutes, maybe. Probably double that before he’s functional enough to do anything other than stagger around, bumping into walls.”

Ten minutes before this place goes on full lockdown, then.” Barrett quickly retrieved the man’s silenced handgun and passed it to me. Reluctantly, I accepted it, so that he could kneel back down and remove a two-way radio from the man’s side. “Can you do anything with this?”

Max? Can you switch us over to a specific two-way frequency?”

I can,” she said immediately, “but if I do that, you won’t just be able to hear them. They’ll hear you, too.”

Shit. Communication was key and crippling our ability to coordinate could easily lead to more problems in the long run. That said, there were only a few of us in the building to begin with. Akumi wasn’t responding, so she was either going rogue or unable to communicate for one reason or another. The same went for Devlin.

Do it,” I said, before I read out the information displayed on the two-way’s screen. “Before you do that, though, did your ping get any results?”

I got something, but it’s weak and getting weaker. If I had to guess, it looks like someone’s moving away from where you are.”

Make the switch,” I said. “I need to know where they’re going and what they’re talking about. Go ahead and mute our line, so that we don’t accidentally give our presence away.”

The earbud clicked twice. I knew that she’d still be able to tell when we were speaking and, knowing her, Max had configured some way to hear what we were saying even when the comms weren’t technically active. In this case, that was perfect.

A moment later, the earbud came back to life. The sound quality was even worse than before, but not so bad that I couldn’t understand what was being said.

What’s your big plan here?” Devlin was asking. He was still using the exaggerated accent, so the kidnappers must not have figured out his cover. “I mean, the same folk that paid you to kill me probably aren’t gonna pay you either, when all’s said and done.”

Someone – presumably the lead kidnapper – chuckled. “If I wasn’t getting paid to kidnap you, I’d probably like you. I hope there aren’t any hard feelings about this; it’s just business.”

You killed innocent men and women,” Devlin said. The simmering anger in his voice wasn’t feigned, either. “You can bet there are hard feelings.”

That wasn’t on purpose,” the lead kidnapper said. “There were some new people in my crew that got a little overeager. They’ve been dealt with, trust me.”

Trust you?”

A few more seconds of silence passed. The lead kidnapper must have responded with some nonverbal gesture or assurance. “Kidnappings are profitable,” he said finally. “Murders are messy. I’ll kill someone if I have to, but something like what happened at the dock house? It’s unprofessional and it puts everyone at risk. I’ve got no love for people that operate like that.”

It was always easier to take down corrupt or evil people than to go after marks who were cocky and vain, but otherwise innocent. Corrupt people were easier to con, for one thing, and they were greedy. They were less likely to call the cops after their own ill-gotten gains were pilfered. And, most importantly, it was easier to generate legitimate emotional grievances against them.

If the lead kidnapper wasn’t lying – and he had no reason to lie – it opened up a wealth of other possibilities to consider. How deeply involved were he and his crew in the Mouse’s machinations? Did they even know about the Magi, even obliquely? Or was he just someone doing a job – an odious, vile job – without any higher aspirations?

So what?” Devlin challenged. “You think that just because you demoted someone, it makes up for the people you killed?”

The men who started that whole fiasco will be found in an apartment, probably in a few days,” the lead kidnapper said. “Apparently, they got into an argument over the money and ended up shooting each other. Several times.”

I swallowed hard. Someone capable of orchestrating that kind of faked suicide without batting an eye was not someone to be trifled with.

If you’re such a decent fella,” Devlin said, “why go through with this, then? You know what your employers are going to do to me.”

I don’t, as a matter of fact, and I don’t want to. My team gets contracts, we work the job, and we take the money. Like I said, this isn’t personal.”

These handcuffs feel awfully personal.”

Flirting with me isn’t going to get you anywhere,” the lead kidnapper said. “But feel free to keep trying, though. It boosts my ego.”

Handcuffs. Devlin had been captured, after all. But where was Akumi? She should have stepped in before things reached that point.

What about the man you took, to bait me into coming here?” Devlin asked. “You’re going to do what you said and let him go?”

As soon as we’ve got you secured in the van, absolutely. No one’s paying us for him.” The lead kidnapper fell silent for a second. “Question: that bodyguard you brought? She’s not going to come after us for this, is she?”

I’m not about to reassure you about your continued well-being,” Devlin said.

We’ll just have to go dark for a while until she calms down,” the lead kidnapper said. “Won’t be the first time. And the money from this job can finance a pretty lengthy sabbatical.”

Assuming that your people actually manage to keep her restrained,” Devlin said, in a needling tone. “If she gets free, it’s not going to go well for your people.”

They know the job and they took the risks. But I don’t think she’ll waste any time on them when she still thinks we’ve got her partner here, do you?”

Barrett gripped my shoulder. When he knew that he had my attention, he tilted his head to one side and touched his ear. “What’s going on?”

Devlin’s trying to find an angle on the kidnapper,” I said. “The bodyguard we sent in with him is…incapacitated, in some way. I don’t quite get that.”

Where are they going?”

They brought a van. That’s where our friend is and where they’re going to load up Devlin.”

I looked at my surroundings. We’d come a long way from the entrance. After passing through the hallways and the backstage area of the theater, we now found ourselves in some sort of storage area.

Max, I know you’re listening,” I said. “Go ahead and change back to the private frequency and find me a map to the building’s loading bay.”

The earbuds clicked, so that I knew she’d affected the change. “On it. What are you going to do?”

I looked at Barrett. He looked down at his gun, which prompted me to look down at my own.

Something very, very stupid,” I said.

Chapter 124

Michel’s down,” I said, as soon as all of the lines were connected. “He’s bleeding and I think something happened to his throat. We need to get him out of here.”

Mila responded first. “Where are you? How do you know that?”

I’m inside the building,” I said. “The details don’t matter. Where are you and can you get here to help me with him?”

I’ve got a location on her earbud,” Max offered. “She’s on the other side of the building, but she can cut through some back rooms to get to where you are in a few minutes.”

On it,” Mila said.

Devlin?” I waited for a few seconds before I remembered his situation. Facing off with the kidnappers’ spokesperson meant that he couldn’t vocally acknowledge anything I was saying. “Devlin, we’re going to extract Michel to somewhere safe. If possible, we’ll try to get him out of the Park entirely so that he can get medical attention.”

When he spoke, he wasn’t speaking to me or to the rest of the team. “We had a deal,” Devlin said. “When you told my bodyguard here what you had in mind, I showed up here willingly. But if you aren’t going to stick to your word, I don’t see why I should waste any more time here.”

We hadn’t planned on your ‘bodyguard’ sharing our plans with you,” the lead kidnapper said. “But it doesn’t really change much on our end.”

You keep saying ‘we’ and ‘our,’ like you’re the one pulling the strings,” Devlin said. “I’d lay even odds that you don’t even know what your bosses actually have in mind.”

I don’t.” The admission was frank and forthright. “With as much money as they offered me to bring you and your associates in, I didn’t really need to know, either.”

Then you don’t really need the other one, either,” Devlin shot back. “Bring him out, make the trade, and then I can sit down with whoever is actually in charge.”

The lead kidnapper hemmed and hawed for a few moments before speaking again. “Where are the rest of your people?”

Devlin let out an obnoxious laugh. “My people? I’ve got people everywhere. You’re gonna have to be more specific than that.”

From what I understand, you were asking questions that you shouldn’t have been asking and getting answers that you shouldn’t have been able to get,” the lead kidnapper said. “That’s what the deal was for: you and anyone who worked with you on your latest project.”

Then that’s just me,” Devlin said. “I don’t bring people any further into my business than I have to and the investigation you’re talking about was just a mite too sensitive for me to have complete strangers crawling around inside of it.”

I don’t buy it. We were given considerable research on the techniques used to uncover some of that information, along with a list of possible suspects. So, I’ll ask you this another way: where’s MaxHeadroom?”

Max gasped and it sounded like she’d made the sound directly into my ear.

Max,” I said, temporarily blocking out the conversation between Devlin and the lead kidnapper, “this was always a possibility. We knew this. Someone matched your work with your screen name; that doesn’t mean they have any idea who you, personally, are.”

You know how many people in the world can identify my work?” Max asked.

I didn’t have to answer that. While most of the remaining members of the Community – TannGate, Frizzle, and myself – would likely be able to ferret out the telltale markers of her hacks, we were all indisposed or in hiding. That left only one person with the skillset to pierce through dense layers of code and the motivation to go through the effort: the Mouse or, more accurately, his alter-ego as Caelum.

It doesn’t change anything,” I said. It took effort to keep my voice steady as I contemplated the ramifications. At the same time, in my peripheral vision, I saw Barrett rip a length of fabric from Michel’s shirt, then prop him up just enough so that he could bind the wound. “We need to handle this, right now, and then worry about what comes next later.”

That was the kind of thing Devlin would say, if he were freely able to speak. Max’ breathing slowed noticeably in the comms, became less panicked and gaspy, so it must have worked.

The door into the room burst open, nearly banging against the wall as it swung out on its hinges. Mila, sucking down air and noticeably favoring her left leg, stood in the doorway. Her hair lay flat against her head, soaked through with sweat and a thicker substance that could very well have been someone else’s blood. Her eyes went from me, to Barrett, and then finally landed on Michel. She didn’t even seem to notice the dead body in the room’s corner.

How long?” Mila asked.

We got here maybe five minutes ago,” I said. “He could’ve been like this for longer, I don’t know.”

Barrett moved aside as Mila stepped over, ceding his position with only a single nod of acknowledgment. She quickly checked Michel’s body, hands flying professionally from his head, lingering around his chest, and then moving down to just above his waist.

So?” I asked, when my anxiety grew too powerful to ignore.

The blood loss is the problem,” Mila said. The tremor in her voice was slight, almost unnoticeable, but I’d been around her in distressing situations far too often. Even the most subtle difference in her flat, matter-of-fact delivery stood out like a beacon. “He’ll definitely need a doctor. A professional one, too.”

That would cause problems. We could hardly walk into the ER and declare that Michel, a foreign national who’d entered the country under a false Visa, had been injured while dealing with a group of kidnappers who’d taken one half of a Yakuza hit squad hostage through sheer force of arms.

My father can help with that,” Max said, through the comms. “I mean…I don’t know for sure, but he’s got to know someone who’s either a doctor or at least knows one.”

We still have to get him out of here,” Mila said.

Michel tried to say something, but his words came out in a wet gurgling sound. I placed a finger over his lips to keep him quiet.

Between the three of us,” I said, “we can get him to an exit. You had to clear a path out to get here in the first place, didn’t you?”

I did the best I could, under the circumstances.” Mila drew in a deep, steadying breath before continuing. “But I can’t know for sure how many people I missed. Judging from the resistance I encountered, there are probably at least five other kidnappers roaming around the premises.”

Sweat began to drip from my forehead into my eyes. It was hot, but the beads of perspiration had nothing to do with the temperature. I ran one hand from my forehead, up through my hair, and blew out a lungful of air. “We don’t have a lot of options, do we?”

That’d be suicide,” Devlin said, quite clearly, through the comms. It took me a moment to realize that he wasn’t talking to me. “I might as well put a gun to my head and pull the trigger myself. I’d have about as much luck getting what you offered my employee here.”

I don’t see where you have much of an option,” the lead kidnapper said. “You’re right; we don’t need the other twin. Akumi can collect her brother and run away with him to whatever corner of the world they choose; as far as me and my people are concerned, they’re not our business. What we do need is to take you, along with anyone who helped you get as far as you did, and bring you to whoever is paying the bills.”

You aren’t the least bit curious?” Devlin asked. “You want to believe that you just took this job, no questions asked, and there isn’t a little voice in the back of your head wondering what it’s all about?”

For the first time, his question seemed to give the lead kidnapper pause. A few seconds passed before he answered. “In my experience,” he said, “anyone willing to pay what we’re getting paid is also willing to terminate any loose ends after the fact. I can’t speak for anyone else who decided to take the contract, but I’m not eager to become a loose end.”

They weren’t negotiating. If that had ever been the truth, the situation had long since changed. Devlin was stalling. What I was listening to told me that the lead kidnapper was both intelligent and circumspect. His men, hired hands or long-time allies, might lack his self-awareness, but the leader himself? He sounded like a man who remained aware of his surroundings and kept himself up to date on the state of play.

In other circumstances, that same self-awareness might have meant that the lead kidnapper could be reasoned with or paid off. Now? It meant that he was going to take Devlin, one way or another. Even if the unnamed “sources” weren’t named before the snatch-and-grab, it was better to get away with the most powerful player in Texas while possible, instead of trying to maneuver their way into a second opportunity.

If I could pick that up just through the comms, then Devlin would have come to that conclusion from body language and word choice a long time ago.

Akumi won’t help him get out,” I said to Mila.

It wasn’t a question, but she looked up from Michel and shook her head. “No. Not if getting him out puts her brother at risk.”

Akumi wore the same earbuds as the rest of us. Just because she’d been silent didn’t mean that she hadn’t been listening in on the conversation, weighing when she might have to go into action.

He’s here,” I said, willing myself to mean the words in a way that couldn’t be misinterpreted. “I know he is. The lead kidnapper’s too smart to leave him somewhere that the bulk of his men weren’t.”

So?” Mila asked. “What does that have to do with anything?”

It means,” I said, “that Akumi needs to stay in place. Before she does something that actually does put her brother in danger.”

In her role as Devlin’s silent bodyguard/betrayer, Akumi couldn’t verbally respond to my plea and I couldn’t see her to know if she’d even acknowledged it. That said, I was fairly certain that I’d know almost immediately if she decided to act on her own accord. That we hadn’t heard the beginnings of a gun fight already was encouraging, but there was no guarantee that Akumi would wait indefinitely. She’d never struck me as a particularly patient person.

Can you support him without me?” I asked Mila.

She raised an eyebrow.

We can’t leave Devlin in there with the kidnapper,” I elaborated. “If they don’t knock him out and throw him into the trunk, they’ll just kill him for not being the Texan.”

And since Akumi won’t protect him…”

Someone has to get him out of there.” I wiped sweat away from my forehead. “But we can’t all be involved in that. You’re going to have to get Michel out of here. I’ll come up with a way to make an opening for Devlin.”

Alone?” Mila asked.

Not alone,” Barrett said. He walked over to the dead man in the corner and began to systematically pat him down. “Odds are these people have something to do with the ones who tried to kill me earlier. That’s the theory you guys have been working on this whole time, right?”

That wasn’t quite true, but it was simpler to assume that all of our varied enemies were really just different tools used by a single antagonist. It also kept me from succumbing to anxiety or fatigue while imagining an endless roster of criminals who had it out for us.

Let’s go with that,” I said.

Well, then it’s in my best interest to deal with them now, while they’re all in one place, isn’t it?” Barrett stood back up, holding a handgun in one hand and a reasonably large switchblade handle in the other.

They aren’t all here,” Mila said. She’d already positioned herself beneath Michel’s arm. Though he was taller and heavier than her, she showed no signs of struggle with his mass. “Whoever is doing this, they’ve got more in reserve.”

Then maybe I can give them an incentive to look for other employment.” Barrett checked the magazine and chamber of his newly acquired weapon. “Either way, I’m not going to let you go serve as a distraction all by yourself, Sarah.”

That’s what we’d allowed Devlin to do, although he had stringently insisted that he was the only possible fit for the role. At the time, I hadn’t felt good about the decision, but I also hadn’t felt guilty about it. Now, looking at Michel’s injured body and Mila’s worried expression, I couldn’t quite suppress a pang of shame. Here was Barrett, a man who had absolutely no skin in the game, willing to serve as backup for someone he barely knew. And here I was, stalling for time and contemplating whether or not my ex-husband, my friend, my partner was in mortal danger.

Mila shifted Michel’s weight so that he lay more evenly across her shoulders. “Sarah?”

The single word contained a wealth of questions, all of which I understood instinctively. “It’s fine,” I said. “CJ is out there, trying to draw my parents and Virginia away. If you can separate him from that group, he might be able to help.”

And if not?”

If not, we’ll have to catch up later.” I paused for effect and willed Mila to understand. I had to do this. “All of us will find you later.”

She lingered for a few precious moments. A moment passed when I wasn’t sure if she’d actually go or if she’d refuse to leave me, her charge, in such a dangerous situation. On the one hand, there was her contract to keep every member of the team safe and whole. On the other hand, there was Michel.

Mila looked away from me, in favor of Barrett. “If Sarah gets hurt,” she said, “understand that I’ll be coming for you.”

Barrett nodded absently. He was looking speculatively at the dead man, as if he might still possess some useful secrets or some bit of gear that we might be able to make us of.

No,” Mila said. She snapped her fingers to get his attention and the sound was both crisp and brittle in the otherwise still air. “I need you to say it. Say that you understand.”

Barrett met her eyes. There was an intensity in his gaze that I hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t quite the same as Devlin’s, but it was close. The devil-may-care attitude, the charisma that could sell sand to a Bedouin, and the cocky surety that I couldn’t help but admire…it was all there in his eyes, plus more.

I won’t let her get hurt,” Barrett said, deadly serious for once.

Mila considered him for a long while before turning back to me. “As soon as I’m sure Michel’s okay, I’m coming back. And Sarah?”

Yes?”

I’m coming in loud. This was a bad idea to begin with and I’m not going to let it get any worse.”

I almost laughed. Worse? I was supposed to be wandering around the outskirts of the Creative Arts Building, monitoring radio frequencies and tolerating Max’ continued presence. Instead, a member of my team was injured, one was leaving to see to the first team member’s injuries, and the third – ostensibly our field leader, although both he and I would likely balk at the term – wasn’t in a position to call the shots. Worse was apparently very relative.

We’ll take care of it,” I said.

Mila didn’t wait for an explicit invitation, although she did linger for just another few seconds to glare at Barrett. With some difficulty – though, not as much as the size difference between the two would indicate – she made her way to the door and, after pausing momentarily to listen for any approaching kidnappers, left the room through the door.

I opened my mouth to say something to Barrett, even though I had no clue what actually needed to be said, but the earbud popped twice in my ear before I could find any words.

It’s just the two of us,” Max said, directly into my ear. “I…I didn’t know if you’d want anyone else to know.”

Know what?” I asked. Barrett raised an eyebrow.

Your…friend, I guess? Your hire? I don’t know what the deal is with the two of you, but the point is that I can’t reach him.”

My blood’s temperature instantly dropped and a pit opened up in my stomach.

You can’t reach him?” I repeated. “What do you mean by that?”

He was talking to the lead kidnapper,” Max said, “Then they stopped talking and there was some static…now he’s gone. I’ve got a weak signal, but no audio.”

Gone. He was gone.

No,” I said out loud. “Not gone yet.”

Chapter 123

The earbud came back to life, almost immediately.

You’re going to what?” Max asked.

I’d expected her to pair the lines up, and then isolate them from each other entirely. She may have done that – keeping Devlin and Akumi linked, as well as Michel and Mila – but she did not break her own ability to eavesdrop. That wasn’t particularly surprising. In her position, I had often done the same thing, although every party had been aware of my telepresence.

I ignored her, in favor of Barrett. “I don’t have time to explain the details,” I said, “but there’s something going down in that theater and I need to be there.”

If that’s the case, why aren’t you?”

Because you brought my parents here,” I snapped. “If I’d known they were going to be sightseeing, I would’ve come up with some other plan, but this is what we’ve got.”

Partially true, but only partially. If I hadn’t been forced to manage the Fords, my proper position was with Max, manning the electronics cart. But Barrett didn’t know that and he couldn’t hear anyone say otherwise, so I didn’t think it likely that he’d call my bluff. I was getting a lot better at half-truths, lately.

What do you need me to do, then?” Barrett asked.

I held up a hand and shifted my attention back to the earbud. “Max? I assume you’re still listening?”

Was this part of the plan?” Max’ voice was a mixture of incredulity and fear. I could relate. “Is this something the rest of you put together on your own and you’re just now telling me about it?”

Don’t worry about that,” I said, trying to sound more confident than I felt. “We always knew things were going to be loose and I need you to just roll with this. Can you do that?”

I listened as she took in several deep, shaky breaths before finally answering. “Yes, I…I think so.”

Alright then.” I pitched my inflection so that Barrett knew I was speaking to him, as well as to Max. “Here’s the plan. I need to see what’s happening inside that theater, but I can’t split my attention. So, Max, I need you to keep me updated on what the others are saying.”

Okay,” Max said slowly. I mentally filed away the knowledge that she was actively listening to all of us and reminded myself, once more, to check all of our electronic devices for hidden spying programs.

CJ.”

Yes?” He didn’t sound scared or nervous. I couldn’t imagine any dangerous situation involving my grandmother – at least, not before I’d inadvertently drawn her into my own web of intrigue – so he must have learned how to deal with unseen threats in some other venue.

You’ve got to get my parents out of here,” I said. “Fabricate some sort of threat, lie if you need to. If you can tip Virginia off, she’ll be able to help. Cover for me, so that they don’t insist on dragging me out of here to talk to some doctor. I can’t be worried about them while I’m worried about my team.”

He nodded. “And if these kidnappers target your family?”

I took a moment to recall what stories I might have told CJ and compared it with what he might have put together on his own. The only people who knew about my online life, and were able to connect it with my real identity, were my team and Max.

They won’t,” I said. “There was a very specific reason for them to go after Akumi’s brother, and there isn’t a similar reason for them to risk a confrontation over Mom, Dad, or Virginia. We’re pretty sure that they’re hoping to get through this without attracting any attention they absolutely don’t have to, and I’m certainly not going to give them a reason to throw away that plan.”

CJ was wearing a light jacket, despite the temperature. He reached one hand inside the jacket, checked what must have been a concealed weapon, and then let both arms fall by his side. One hand clenched into a fist momentarily, before it relaxed again.

If there was any job I could absolutely trust CJ to do, it was keeping Virginia out of harm’s way. He wouldn’t need to use his gun, unless things went horribly and catastrophically wrong. But, if that happened, I probably wouldn’t be in any position to comment on that development. That thought was cold comfort, but it was oddly comforting, nonetheless.

Barrett, you’re good at infiltration. Guess what I need from you.”

I do most of my work at night,” Barrett protested. “Rainy, dark nights, if possible. And without the added handicap of a few hundred, maybe even a thousand, perfect eye witnesses.”

Going into the theater isn’t against the law,” I pointed out.

Then why do you need help getting in?”

Because,” I said, “the rest of my team is working their own angles. If I’m spotted by the people we’re trying to deal with, it could put everyone in jeopardy.”

A tiny voice piped up from the depths of my mind, pointing out that the safest thing, then, would be to stay the hell outside like I was supposed to. That voice was quickly overridden by the rising tide of anxiety and excitement heating up my veins. I could help. I would help.

Looks to be about twenty-thousand square feet,” Barrett mused to himself. “Only two floors, which is good. Without any tools, I couldn’t get us higher than the second floor anyway. But someone’s going to call the cops if they see us scaling the side of the place, so…hmm.”

Can you do it?” I pressed.

We could just go in through the front door,” Barrett said.

I gave him a flat look.

No,” he said, “I’m serious. You said that your team is working things from their end. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the people you want to avoid are going to have their hands full dealing with your people. The last thing they’d expect is someone just strolling in through the front door. Besides, even if they do have a problem, you’ve got a perfect cover.”

That being?”

You’re Sarah Ford.” Barrett shrugged. “You could say that you’re interested in donating to the upkeep of the building or something like that. It’s not like they’re not going to leap straight to thinking that you’re a part of some criminal conspiracy.”

Oh.” I blinked, dumbfounded at the simplicity. “I…didn’t think about that.”

I would be exposed, but that exposure would itself become a sort of disguise. As long as I was relying on the public’s attention, I might as well make use of their gaze as a means of protection. I only needed to get inside the theater without arousing a response from the kidnappers before I could drop the act. Besides, as long as they were looking at me, they wouldn’t be keeping an eye out for whatever sabotage Michel and Mila were wreaking on their numbers.

Devlin is negotiating with the kidnappers,” Max said.

Negotiating for what?”

Time, I think? I don’t think they brought Akumi’s brother with them. Or, if they did, then he isn’t in the same room as Devlin and the lead kidnapper.”

I cursed softly. Button cameras were fairly inexpensive and easy to construct, but we hadn’t been able to get them to work properly with the electronics cart. I wanted eyes in the room, but it was too late to complain about that now.

What about Mila?” I asked.

She’s been keeping count,” Max said. “Four kidnappers neutralized, plus the three they neutralized before going into the theater, all on the upper floor. They’re…yeah, she just said that they’re moving on to sweep the first floor now.”

Seven kidnappers, plus the one talking to Devlin. It was likely that they’d brought at least two times as many, perhaps three, just to ensure a numerical advantage in case a fight broke out. If she took her time and didn’t set off any alarms, I could easily imagine Mila successfully taking down twelve, perhaps fourteen, in isolated ambushes. It was only a matter of time before someone managed to raise an alarm, though, and when that happened, events would quickly descend into a free-for-all.

Anything else?”

Nothing right now,” Max said. She hesitated and then continued, in a lower voice. “You’re sure that this is the best idea, Sarah?”

I’m sure that it’s what we’re doing,” I responded. “So let’s make sure we do it the best way we can.”

Barrett had been waiting patiently during my conversation with Max. Without an earbud of his own, he could only listen carefully to my half of the conversation and use context to create a script in his head. I ran back through what I’d said, realized that very little of it had been descriptive enough to help, and decided that I was okay with that. Information was an invaluable currency and I wanted to hoard as much of it as possible.

There are probably going to be guards on the inside of the theater,” I said to him. “We don’t know how many or how motivated they’re going to be.”

That’s not ideal.”

You don’t say.”

I’m not complaining,” Barrett said quickly. “Just pointing out that this is going to be, uh…interesting.”

I rolled my eyes. “CJ, go ahead and get started. I don’t have my phone on me right now, but you can send a text if something goes wrong. I’ll find out what it says. Right, Max?”

Uh…yeah,” Max said. At least she had the grace to sound embarrassed about it.

CJ took off, double-time, to catch up with my parents and steer them out of the park. As soon as he disappeared from sight, I forcefully put him out of my thoughts. I needed to be in the moment.

Are you armed?” I asked Barrett. “Carrying any sort of weapon at all?”

I don’t have a gun, if that’s what you mean,” he said. “Kind of hard to justify that with your parents.”

Does that mean you don’t have anything at all useful?”

Barrett grinned. “Didn’t say that, now did I? I’ve got some odds and ends that I don’t leave home without. If things get hairy, I can probably take out one, maybe two people, assuming they don’t see me coming.”

When things get hairy,” I corrected. “They’ve already gotten hairy. The hairiness is a matter of record, now. So keep your eyes open.”

I’ve dealt with guards before,” Barrett said.

Good. Why don’t you show me how it’s done, then?”

He accepted that light challenge with gusto. Taking long steps that ate up the distance, Barrett blazed a path through the teeming crowds of people. A combination of his natural size and a palpable aura of confidence moved men and women out of our way, so subtly that they might not even have been aware that they’d moved at all. More than a few of the women looked appreciatively at him over their shoulders. At least two stared a little more lasciviously.

None of them seemed to look at me, at all. I wondered if that was another trick he was employing: assuming a posture so striking that it became difficult for anyone to notice anything or anyone else.

We reached the community theater without incident. “Max,” I said. “Any change?”

Mila and Michel split up,” she said. “He thought it would cover more ground; she argued against it, but he won.”

The more people they could take out of action, the better, but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of Michel operating on his own. He’d picked up the basics of everyone’s specialties like a duck to water, but he still wasn’t a specialist, per se. At least, not in the areas of thievery and crime that we could tutor him in. From ambush, with the advantage of size or strength, I had no doubt that he’d ultimately come out victorious in any brief skirmish. But those skirmishes might attract the attention of passing kidnappers or the win itself might come with an injury too demanding to be ignored.

To say nothing of the possibility that he might be the one ambushed, now that there was no one watching his back.

And Devlin?”

I think they’re at a stalemate?” Max’ uncertainty made my skin crawl. “The lead kidnapper won’t bring out Kira, no matter what Devlin says. I think he might not believe that he’s actually my dad.”

How would he know that?”

How should I know?” Max asked.

Akumi had been tasked to bring the Texan and anyone else who knew anything about his current area of study to the kidnappers. She’d only brought the Texan. If the Magi or the Mouse was aware of Max’ activities, it wasn’t unreasonable that the kidnappers had also been told to expect at least two people. If they had even the faintest inkling that my team might also have been on site, they would probably be waiting for even more.

They probably think he’s keeping his sources safe,” I said, delicately.

Max cut through the diplomatic phrasing immediately, though. “They’d only want the source who was helping him cut through their security: me. You’re talking about me. They’re talking about me.”

Maybe,” I conceded. “Probably, even. But they can’t know if there’s more than one of you and, until they do, they can’t really risk overplaying their hand.”

I made an effort to sound more sure of that conclusion than I actually was. There was a more dire possibility that I didn’t want to acknowledge, and my thoughts retreated from that idea without allowing it to clarify into anything intelligible.

Door’s locked,” Barrett said. A moment passed while he fiddled with the handle and some tiny tools that were barely visible in his hands. “Well, it was locked.”

I waited for about fifteen seconds until I was certain no one was looking directly at me before I slipped inside the theater. Barrett followed behind me and carefully, slowly closed the door so that the click when its lock re-engaged was soft enough that no one else could possibly have heard it.

Now that I was inside the theater, the myriad reasons as to why this was a very bad idea came rushing to the forefront of my mind. It was too late to go back, though. We’d look even more suspicious and, besides, it was always better to commit to the job than to attempt a reversal. That was one of the first lessons I’d learned about Devlin’s side of things.

Because we hadn’t known about the specific meeting site before entering the Park, there hadn’t been time to get our hands on any floor plans for the theater. I drew in a deep breath and examined my surroundings as thoroughly as I could, given the time constraint, and hoped that I’d get enough of a feeling for the building that I wouldn’t walk into a dead-end or accidentally open the door to a room full of armed kidnappers.

The building was a lot larger than I’d assumed. The community theatre itself was only one small part of the entire creative arts center. To my left and right, long stretches of hallway peppered with irregular doors hinted at private viewing rooms, practice spaces, and larger spaces for traveling exhibits. The theatre was somewhere in the center of the building, more or less, if the signs placed on the wall were accurate. A pair of heavy double doors just in front of me most likely led directly to the theatre, but I wasn’t silly enough to take those.

While I wasn’t the best at sensing when things were awry, I’d gotten better at that intangible skill over the last six months. Nothing inside the building tripped my internal sensors. In fact, the lack of warning signs was alarming in its own right. I knew there were people here, both on my team and working in opposition to my friends. There should have been some sound, coming from somewhere.

Max,” I said, in a voice so soft that I could barely hear my own words. “Where is Devlin, in relation to the front door?”

Silent seconds stretched out into a silent minute before she answered. “There’s a path to the stage that goes through the dressing rooms and backstage. That’s probably your best bet.”

Which way?”

There should be an intersection to your right,” Max said. “About three or four doors away?”

I looked in that direction. The closest intersection was actually five doors away. Max’ inexperience, combined with her very reasonable fear, was getting in the way of her ability to accurately do her job. Chastising her would only push her further into her own head, though, so I shelved any rebuke for later.

I see it,” I said. “We’re going in that direction. Link us up with Michel, too; he might have a better idea of what’s happening on the ground, so to speak.”

Max swallowed audibly. “Alright.”

Barrett and I crept down the eerily silent hallway, careful to step as softly as possible for fear of a creaking floorboard. I found myself mimicking his exaggerated motions. He was the professional when it came to infiltrations like this; it only made sense to do as he did.

We were at the fourth of five doors, almost to the intersection when I would need updated instructions, when a belabored moan pierced the heavy air. I froze in place, one foot barely touching the floor.

What was that?” I asked.

One of the kidnappers?” Barrett suggested.

I would have accepted that answer, if Max hadn’t chosen that instant to reconnect the lines. The moaning wasn’t just coming from behind the door to my left; it was also coming through my earbud.

Fear overtook any semblance of common sense in a flash. I reached out to the door and opened it, utterly disregarding any caution or care. Michel lay inside, sprawled across the floor in a gangly heap of limbs, sweat, and blood.

I stared, stupefied, for far too long. It was Barrett, entering behind me and shutting the door, who actually took action. He dashed across the room to Michel’s side and began to examine my friend, hoping to find the primary injury and treat it in some way. I stood by the door, locked into place, until Barrett looked back up at me.

It’s not mortal,” Barrett said. He pointed to the far corner of the room, where another body lay, unmoving.

What about the blood?” I heard my voice squeak but couldn’t bring myself to care about that. “That’s…that’s a lot of blood, isn’t it?”

I followed a trail of blood with my eyes, from Michel over to the body in the corner. There, a steadily widening puddle of blood pooled beneath the man.

Most of it isn’t his,” Barret said. “He does have an injury, though. Right here, underneath his breastbone. It looks like something ripped open as a result of the struggle, not because of anything that happened during it.”

How bad is it?”

Barrett gave me a serious look. “Bad. He’ll survive, but only if he gets help.”

A million things ran through my head. There were the kidnappers, still in position to execute some sort of double cross. Devlin was talking with the lead kidnapper, trying to secure the release of Akumi’s brother, while Akumi stood near him as his “bodyguard.” If things went wrong, she wouldn’t hesitate to stab him in the back if it meant she’d get her brother back. There was Mila, still working her way through the building, clearing it. There was Max, whose help I ultimately needed if I wanted to deal with the looming threat represented by the Mouse.

And then there was Michel, bleeding on the floor in front of me, struggling to speak around whatever injury had been done to his throat.

It wasn’t even a choice.

Max,” I said. “Get me everyone. Now. We’ve got to pull out.”

Chapter 122

In my experience, it was hard for most people to speak with teammates that they couldn’t also see. Devlin had taken to the earbuds almost immediately and, after years of hard-won experience, I was more or less proficient in dividing up my attention when possible. Barrett presumably worked alone most of the time, so there’d be no need for constant communications with a team. CJ, in his capacity as the head of Virginia’s security, must have had spent more time speaking to people that no one around him could see than I would otherwise have guessed.

He understood, without needing to know why, that I had exaggerated the truth to Devlin. And he knew, instinctively, not to say anything about that lie out loud. These earbuds weren’t as sensitive as the ones I’d customized myself, which CJ couldn’t possibly know, but he was still willing to keep my secret. That was important, whether or not a soft question would even have been picked up and transmitted.

When we caught back up to the group, CJ caught my eyes and then flicked his head in Virginia’s direction. The unspoken question – Is she in danger? – came through, clear as a bell.

I shook my head and was relieved to realize that I was telling the full, literal truth. None of my family was in any greater danger than they would otherwise have been. In fact, by using my parents’ fame as a lightning rod for attention, I was arguably making them safer. The kidnappers might be willing to kill a bunch of people in an out-of-the-way dock house; it was another matter entirely to use violence when a thousand people were recording.

That fact – the only positive I could draw from an increasingly convoluted situation – was also intrinsically tied to the negatives that made my self-appointed task so difficult. There were just too many people in the Park.

They looked too much alike for me to easily differentiate between individuals. If there wasn’t an official dress code for Dallas, the people around us hadn’t gotten the memo. Most men wore outfits almost identical to Devlin’s: blue jeans, cowboy boots, button-up shirts, and cowboy hats of various size and shade. The women also wore jeans, although they tended to be accompanied with fancy designs and embroidery, along with bedazzled belts and large hairstyles. There were only a few variants to choose from, however, so the size of their hair wouldn’t be useful in identifying any standouts.

Sarah?” Devlin, in my ear. He sounded concerned; or, more accurately, he sounded as concerned as he could be while in ‘mission mode.’ “You don’t have to do this. Keeping your parents from getting in our way is enough to deal with.”

I waited until Raymond and Elizabeth paused to consult a map before I answered, in the lowest voice I could manage. “I’m here and I can help. Unless you think this isn’t something I can do?”

The next time I spoke with Doctor Bridges – an appointment I definitely needed to schedule sooner, rather than later – I hoped that she’d be able to prescribe something that might get in the way of my own mouth. I was worried about what I’d taken on; I wasn’t sure that I coud do it. Neither of those facts had stopped me from reflexively defending my nonexistent ability.

He hesitated. “It isn’t that,” he said finally. “I’m just trying to make sure that you aren’t taking on more than you’re comfortable handling right now. I don’t have any doubt in your ability to help us with this part of things.”

I would’ve said more, but the crowd in front of us parted. People had been trailing behind us for a while, snapping the occasional photograph or whispering to their friends. I noticed it peripherally and, instead of attempting to ignore them as usual, forced myself to pay attention to the drone of their conversations. I wouldn’t have been able to pick anyone out of the crowd, if my father hadn’t chosen that exact moment to check the map again, accidentally striking up a remarkable pose against the backlight of the scene.

Immediately, phones were drawn from pockets and a hundred different cell cameras clicked, almost in unison. Again, I was used to Raymond and Elizabeth being the centers of attention whenever we went out, so that wasn’t surprising. What was surprising, however, were the two people – one male, one female – standing at the edge of the gathering crowd. They weren’t looking at the Fords come to visit; their bodies were angled slightly away and north, in the direction of the community theater.

CJ tapped me on the shoulder and surreptitiously pointed at the same pair. “They’re carrying,” he asked, his voice barely audible. “Are they with you?”

I shook my head and adjusted my voice so that my parents couldn’t hear me. “I think I’ve got two,” I whispered into the comms.

Max, connect her with everyone else,” Devlin said.

There was a almost sheepish silence for a few seconds; then, the earbud clicked twice.

We’re all on the same line,” Max said.

Mila?” I asked. “Are you still dealing with whoever it was that you saw?”

Define finished,” Mila said. “I managed to take down one of the kidnappers without putting this whole place on alert, but there’s always a chance he’s going to get free and cause trouble down the line.”

Or that someone will find him,” Michel added.

Well, we didn’t really have a lot of available places to stash a grown man, did we?” Mila shot back.

Stop it,” Devlin said. He didn’t imbue the command with any special authority or presumption. He just spoke the words, cold and focused, with the absolute foreknowledge that the other two members of our team would obey.

Is there something else going on?” Mila asked.

Sarah’s spotting for us,” Devlin said. “If we have another pair of eyes looking for anything out of place, it’ll be easier for us to make sure that we don’t get blindsided during the actual exchange.”

Spotting?” Mila repeated. “I thought the whole point was that she was trying not to be seen.”

Long story short, her parents are here. She’s going to use their visibility as a cover.”

And you’re okay with that?”

Doesn’t matter if I’m okay with it,” Devlin said. “What matters is that she’s doing this and we’re going to make the most of it.”

Mila didn’t respond immediately. When she finally did speak again, her tone was more subdued but, somehow, far more forceful. “Call them out, then.”

Sarah? I know you can’t speak freely, but if you can tell us something about the two you saw, we can get someone in position to handle it.”

I nodded to myself then, carefully, tried to pick my words in a way that wouldn’t tip off my family or Barrett.

What’s the Hall of State?” I asked out loud.

Elizabeth stopped and turned to look back at me. “The what now?”

I pointed. “That building, right there,” I said. “Just off of…what street is this? Grand Avenue?”

It’ll take us a few minutes to get there,” Mila said in my ear. “Michel, I want you to go around the back, so we can try to get them between us. Sarah, let us know if they change position.”

I’ll try to get the cart in place, just to make sure we aren’t missing anyone else nearby,” Max said.

And we’ll keep doing what we’re doing,” Devlin said. “Can’t risk letting the kidnappers figure out that we’ve got our own plan going on here.”

I mentally blocked out their voices as much as I could. Outside of direct commands or critical instructions, they weren’t really conversing with each other, which made it easier. Still, I couldn’t help but cede a portion of my attention to the earbud. If something went wrong, I’d only be able to find out via the voices in my ear. I wouldn’t be able to actually do anything, but that was a problem I’d have to deal with if it came up.

Elizabeth waved a hand in front of my eyes. “Sarah? Are you still there, Sarah?”

Hmm? Oh!” I blinked hard and forced myself to focus on present company, instead of wandering through the wilderness of my own thoughts. “Sorry, I was just, uh, trying to remember. I read something about that place a day or two ago, but I can’t recall anything specific to save my life.”

Elizabeth tilted her head and gave me an odd, searching look. She was interrupted when Virginia, clearing her throat loudly and deliberately, literally stepped between us.

She’s been through a lot,” Virginia said to Elizabeth. “I think we can allow her to have a moment of daydreaming, don’t you?”

I didn’t mean that she shouldn’t,” Elizabeth protested, “but she’s just seemed to be somewhere else ever since we landed. I’m worried that she might need to see somebody about the trauma, Raymond. Don’t you think that would helpful?”

I already see Doctor Bridges,” I said automatically.

Leslie – I mean, Doctor Bridges – might not be the best specialist for you right now,” Elizabeth said.

I opened my mouth to protest, but the words dried up in my throat. In the distance, barely visible between the shifting, undulating rows of people, I caught a glimpse of Mila moving through the crowd like a shark. Her eyes were fixed unerringly on the two potential kidnappers whose eyes, in turn, didn’t turn away from the direction of the community theater. As they crossed in front of the doors leading into the Hall of State, Michel melted out of the crowd and threw himself at the pair. There wasn’t any art or grace in the attack, but it caught both man and woman by surprise. They stumbled backwards and nearly regained their balance; before that could happen, however, Mila added her mass and shoved them both through the doors.

Whatever happened next was both quick and brutal. I could only listen to the sounds of struggle through the earbuds, breath held and heart pumping pure fire through my veins. The entire conflict probably only took twenty to thirty seconds, but it felt like an eternity.

Clear,” Mila said, gasping for breath. “They could have used their guns, but they didn’t. I guess they’re trying to keep this low profile, just like we thought.” She paused. “Michel, are you alright?”

When he answered, even I could tell that he was forcing himself to sound calm and controlled. “I will be fine,” he said through what must have been gritted teeth. “Just give me a moment to recover.”

That’s not deep,” Mila said, “but it is going to hurt like a bitch. Are you sure you don’t need to -”

I am sure,” Michel insisted. He grunted into the comms before speaking again. “If you do not think this is a serious injury, then I can still help. We can take care of this later.”

Alright, then.” Mila sounded a little impressed. “Sarah? You heard that, didn’t you?”

I heard you,” I said, out loud. As soon as the words left me, I remembered that I wasn’t a mile or two away, in a position where I could speak without concern for who might overhear.

Elizabeth and Raymond both stopped and stared at me. By some unspoken agreement, my father was the one who spoke first. “I know that you heard us, sweetheart,” he said. “But you have to understand that it’s important for you to get the proper care. You know that we’re only suggesting this because we think it’s what would be best for you, don’t you?”

I hadn’t the foggiest idea what they were talking about. When Michel and Mila had gone after the two targets, I’d focused so completely on the trickle of information I got through the earbud that, consequently, I’d ignored almost everything in my vicinity. It was a minor miracle that I hadn’t walked face-first into a tourist, a tent pole, or my own parents’ backs.

If you think this is something serious,” I said, choosing my words to be as ambiguous as possible, “then I’m obviously willing to consider whatever options you think are best. Just…not now, okay? I don’t think it’s as bad as you’re making it out to be.”

You’re getting lost in your own thoughts all of the time,” Elizabeth said, sweetly and delicately. “You’ve been avoiding us, which isn’t all that unusual, but you’ve barely spent any time at all with your husband this entire trip.”

Or your grandmother,” Raymond added. He ignored the subtle look that Elizabeth shot his way.

She’s a young woman,” Virginia protested. “I don’t expect her to spend all of her time keeping this old lady company.”

What are you doing with your days?” Elizabeth asked. “We know you aren’t staying at the hotel.”

Barrett stepped up beside me, but he couldn’t answer that question for me. First, he didn’t actually know what I’d been up to, except in the vaguest, most general terms. Second, because he’d have to betray at least some aspect of his cover if he revealed foreknowledge of my reasons for dodging family time. And third, perhaps most importantly, if anyone was going to creatively phrase the truth with my parents, that burden could only rightly fall on my own shoulders.

I’m dealing with some things,” I said cautiously. “Personal things. It’s just some issues that I’ve needed to sort out for a while now. That’s all it is.”

We only want to help,” Raymond said. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

It was dangerous enough, as is. Virginia knew more than I would’ve wanted her to. Her personal bodyguard and lover knew even more, and the only guarantee I had that he’d stay quiet was his personal fear that involving my grandmother would put her at risk. We’d picked up a cat burglar that at least two members of my team didn’t trust, an enforcer that only one person even liked, and a father/daughter pair whose relationship I couldn’t begin to parse. I wouldn’t add my parents. I would not.

I can handle it,” I said. The irony that I’d lied, or exaggerated, to loved ones twice with almost the exact same line wasn’t lost on me. “Just give me some space to deal with this, alright? If it seems like I’m wrestling with something in my head, trust that I know what I’m doing. Can you do that for me?”

My parents turned to each other. Elizabeth looked a little skeptical, while the only emotion I could make out on Raymond’s face was pure paternal concern.

We can try,” Elizabeth said.

I hated the duplicity. Just because I hadn’t told them an outright lie didn’t change the fact that I was knowingly manipulating them. With CJ, I’d used his affection for my grandmother. With my parents, I was playing off of their faith in me. They were lies I told to protect them, I knew that much, but that knowledge didn’t assuage even an ounce of the guilt within me.

Nonetheless, I found a way to reach down deep inside of myself and put all of that guilt into a tiny box, which I mentally placed out of the way. I could make amends when the Mouse was neutralized as a threat, when the Magi were revealed and exposed to whatever the Lady had in store for them.

As if that would happen anytime soon.

Can you excuse me for a second?” I asked my parents. “I just need to get myself together and I’d rather not have you watching me while I do it.”

If there was anything that could still be counted on in the world, it was my parents’ natural aversion to outward expression of emotion. They were fine behind closed doors – for a given value of ‘fine,’ yes – but in public, they preferred to limit themselves to only the most proper displays of affection. They barely held hands where there might be cameras, except when that image would give them a better position in some negotiation.

Raymond cleared his throat gruffly. “Of course. We’ll be right up there. Just catch up whenever you’re ready.”

I’ll stay with her,” Barrett volunteered. “Just to make sure she’s alright.”

If I could have glared at him without damaging our cover, I would’ve shot holes through his chest with nothing more than the force of my eyes.

We would appreciate that,” Elizabeth said. “Maybe she’ll tell you what’s going on.”

Both of my parents pivoted on their heels and walked briskly away. Thankfully, the majority of onlookers went with them. I’d never really been a part of the celebrity billionaire culture, so Raymond and Elizabeth Ford were far more interesting and worthy of being followed than the youngest child of the family, who’d never done anything to really distinguish herself above the rest of her family.

CJ stayed, without needing to be asked or ordered to do so. He watched my parents leave and, when they were far enough away, nodded decisively to himself. He was steeling himself for something.

Is she safer when she isn’t near you?” CJ asked, finally.

I blinked. “In the short term,” I agreed, “but if this gets out of control, none of us are going to be safe. The best thing is to work with us until we can resolve everything.”

Barrett made sure no one was near enough to hear him before he spoke. “Does that mean you’re finally going to tell me what the hell is actually going on here?”

This isn’t your problem,” I said.

It wasn’t my problem,” Barrett corrected. “But I just saw your driver and bodyguard ambush two people in broad daylight. You didn’t seem awfully surprised by that, which means you knew this was going to happen. Your grandmother’s bodyguard is taking steps to keep his client as far away from you as possible. And, unless you’ve suddenly decided to become a lot more bloodthirsty than I first thought, the only reason I can think of why either of you would be okay with that level of violence is because you’re worried those people would be capable of worse.”

It was a combination of cold-reading and intuition that I’d seen Devlin use before, although Devlin tended to be less blunt about his summations. Reading the tiny frowns, barely noticeable eye twitches, and the rhythm of my breathing as clues, Barrett was picking the truth out of a thousand infinitesimal clues. If he was that skilled, there wasn’t any point in lying to him.

The people who orchestrated the attack at the dock house are here,” I hissed into his ear. “In the Park, right now. They’ve got someone hostage who we need to get back.”

Barrett opened his mouth, then closed it. Three seconds passed before he opened it again. “They picked this location?”

Not this location,” I said, “but the Park in general, yes.”

How can I help?”

The earbuds had been quiet since Mila and Michel’s joint attack. I had assumed that, during the conversation with my parents, Max had taken the initiative to cut me out of the line again. I was proven wrong when someone audibly coughed and cleared their throat. I held up a hand to Barrett and focused my attention on the earbud.

I hear you were looking for me,” Devlin said, in a broadly exaggerated Texas accent. It wasn’t an exact match for the actual Texan, but it was certainly close enough to fool anyone that didn’t know the man personally.

Yes,” a cold, measured voice responded. I had to strain to hear it, due mostly to the subpar equipment we were using. “Our employer wanted to get your attention.”

Well,” Devlin said, “you’ve got it.”

Had Devlin already gone inside? The kidnappers must have reached out to Akumi at some point; maybe I’d missed the signal from the rest of the time. Maybe they hadn’t even bothered filling me in. They knew I had a lot on my plate, what with my parents and Barrett here to deal with. Tackling the exchange on their own might have seemed like the best decision. Not even seemed; in all honesty, it probably was the best choice, from their perspective.

I squinted, but I obviously couldn’t see through the walls, into the innards of the community theater. From where I was, I could barely even see the building. There were a few bodies that seemed to be lingering in the general area, but I couldn’t be sure from my position. Were those additional kidnappers that the others hadn’t noticed? Were they planning to ambush everyone immediately, long before any counter plan could be put into motion? Or were they just tourists, admiring a local building before moving onto something more interesting and dynamic?

We’re coming in through the side door,” Mila said, via the earbud. “Max, we’re going to want to focus. Can you isolate the channels so that we don’t get distracted?”

Got it,” Max said.

A moment later, my earbud went dead. I moved forward until I could see Michel and Mila slip into the theater. When they were gone, I was left standing alone in the street, staring fruitlessly at the impassive walls of the theater.

I needed information. That was the only way I could do my job, the only way I could assist my team with whatever difficulties they would meet inside the theater. But out here, kept safe and removed from the real action? I couldn’t do anything other than worry.

And I was sick of worrying.

I lowered my hand and locked eyes with Barrett. “You want to help? Get me into that theater.”